In this article from one of our favourite Shimmy Enthusiasts, Sean Hall, he explains the problems with Wellness Programs and why they are in fact ‘unwell’!

Before you read this I just want to warn you that most HR people I’ve met don’t like me.

I discovered this when I gave up my big shiny GM of Marketing job with lots of perks and big budgets to take a secondment (with no perks and zero budget) as GM of Employee Experience reporting to the CHRO of one of Australia’s most valuable and iconic brands.

Besides it sometimes feeling like the “you can’t sit with us” scene from the movie Mean Girls, what was amazing about this role was the autonomy I was given to explore two things.

Exploring my Options

The first was to construct a way of looking at culture and people strategy based on my belief that customer experience is a product of employee experience. The second was a personal passion of mine to show the business case for wellness as a driver of profit, productivity and engagement.

Sixteen years in the fitness industry in a previous life, two burn outs, a year of research in the Employee Experience role and then almost two years of research, design, experimentation and testing have led me to identify the following five issues we face when it comes to the complex issue of wellness.

1.The societal context of wellness is not considered

I start here because people and organisations are all part of something bigger.

We live in a time when we have more access to information about ‘how to’ be well than ever before, yet health statistics say we are more unwell than ever. We seem to have an epidemic of health epidemics.

Stress is seen to be a contributor to over 75% of human illnesses, almost  of Australians are overweight or obese, and depression affects 1 in 5 every year.

The root cause of this is simple. We’ve never been taught how to ‘be well’ in a holistic way.

So, if the problem is so big at a societal level what makes businesses think they are in a position to solve it?

2. Most wellness programs are not about wellness and that’s the problem

By definition an approach to wellness needs to:

  • Preventative
  • About being healthy
  • Holistic – considering physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness
  • Encourage and support sustained effort as being well can’t be bought

When you scratch the surface of the wellness programs out there most are in the C.Y.A. (Cover Your Arse) category. When you look at where the request originated, they’ve been designed in response to the commercial and reputational risks associated with unwell or dead employees.

They are reactive exercises to deal with the symptoms of employees being unwell and then cleverly internally marketed as mindfulness and wellbeing.

3. Culture and wellness need to be considered together

Culture is unique to the business, while wellness is unique to the individual. You will not have well people within a toxic culture (for very long anyway). It’s essential to address the system and the individual simultaneously for any wellness investment to be sustainable.

Some organisations do not take responsibility for the impact of the culture or employee experience system on the wellness of their people. When this is missing the responsibility for wellness is shifted solely and unfairly onto the employee.

Which leads me to…

4. An antiquated HR mindset

My experience was that some HR people saw themselves as sort of pseudo doctors.

Does this feel familiar? Certain behaviours turn up or are seen to be missing (usually by someone senior who isn’t actually exhibiting them themselves), some HR cohorts make a whole bunch of assumptions as to why this is happening (bias much?), diagnose what is wrong or missing with employees (because they must be at fault right?) and then prescribe ‘interventions’ to fix them (without consultation with the people deemed to need the fixing).

What’s scary in this scenario when it comes to wellness is that my experience has been that the people and teams leading wellness in organisations are rarely pictures of health themselves often made worse by apathy and lack of self-awareness.

5. Too fluffy, shallow or elitist

Because wellness is a concept that is misunderstood, the majority of programs come across as fluffy and feel good. The technical term I like to use is ‘woo-woo’. Feel free to use it yourself. It’s fun.

This leads programs to feel shallow, like a collection of cool things that sort of make sense but cannot practically link wellness to individual and organisational performance. As such they’ll always be in danger of being on the CFO chopping block when shareholders want more returns.

The more serious programs come across as elitist. Surely, we shouldn’t need to be an ‘athlete’ just to go to work or a leader for your organisation to care about your wellness. Isn’t there enough inequality already without wellness being added to the list?

OK so now what?

So, whether you like me or not, if you’ve gotten to this point hopefully you’re open to some ideas of what we should do next to care for our people. It comes down to two words and a new capability we call ‘energy intelligence’ or ‘ExIQ’. I’ll share more in my blog on wellness next in the mwah. newsletter next week.

Article written by Sean Hall