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Some workplace wellness programs are failing employees. Here’s how they can do better

June 10, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC
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Workplace wellness programs need to ask employees what they want to feel well at work.
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Free meditation apps, discounted gym memberships, and health coaching programs are among the wellness offerings companies are touting to lure and retain employees. The problem? Though about 80 percent of large U.S. employers offered workplace wellness programs as of 2019, many companies are pouring money into offerings that miss the mark. 

Employee wellbeing isn’t just good for the workers, MetLife’s 2021 U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study identified it as a key determinant of a company’s future success.

Yet, in the American Psychological Association (APA) 2021 Work and Well-being Survey, 32% of respondents reported that work stress led to feelings of emotional exhaustion, and three in five said that this stress impacted their motivation, energy, and effort levels at work.

The question employers need to ask themselves is: How can we design wellness programs that nurture employees while inspiring them to do good work? Ahead, experts outline the most common mistakes in workplace wellness policy, and share their visions for programs that promote long-term, inclusive, and intersectional wellbeing. 

Mistake 1: Wellness perks that only address employee health outside of work

“Fundamentally, the problem with a lot of wellness programs is that they put the onus completely on the individual. So the idea is: here’s a meditation app that you can use to meditate, but don’t do it during work hours, and don’t bother the rest of your team with it,” says Liz Fosslien, head of content and communications at Humu, a company that uses AI to help drive positive behavior habits at work.

Whether companies mean to or not, this sequestering of health benefits sends a clear message: Wellness is a way to counteract the stressful effects of work, not a way to feel well at the virtual or physical office. 

A 2019 Harvard study found that, when it comes to a safe environment, workers value the basics (for example, clean air, natural light, noise neutralization, and visible nature) over fancier resources (like tech-based fitness tools and healthy lunches).  

When deciding where to focus their wellness budgets, companies should consider covering essentials before moving on to premium perks. And when putting the more deluxe perks in place, they should encourage employees to make use of them during the workday—whether that means allowing for midday therapy appointments or for workers to cut out early for fitness classes). 

Mistake 2: Benefits don’t match employee needs

Every single employee walks into the workplace with different needs, struggles, and perspectives, says James Edward Murray, CEO of Therify, a workplace mental health service. Put simply: wellness perks shouldn’t be one size fits all. 

“Traditionally, if you were going to roll out a mental health resource in the company, it would come through a centralized benefits team. Historically, when mental health resources are distributed and promoted to benefits teams, there’s very low utilization: the average utilization rate is less than 10 percent,” says Murray. He notes that this is a result of people not viewing the benefits as useful and applicable to their lives and/or distrusting the source of these benefits. 

Diversity is critical when it comes to who leads wellness efforts. “I learned through my lived experience working within large companies that there’s a lack of trust, particularly among marginalized folks that centers around privacy and confidentiality,” he explains. “If I’m a Black person within a large company, and that [mental health] resource is coming from someone who looks like me and shares my same experience, I’m going to trust it more.” 

What’s more, Murray says that employers should ask staffers what policies would truly transform their wellbeing at work to ensure they’re investing in the right resources. Online mental health benefits, for example, may provide more meaningful support than access to a suite of meditation apps. Companies should gather information before creating solutions.

Mistake 3: Leadership doesn’t have the tools to promote wellbeing at work

“Mental wellbeing really needs to start in the c-suite,” says Murray. “The CEO needs to communicate to the entire company, because everyone is concerned about what their boss is going to think right?” Do managers feel like they have enough executive backup to approve an employee’s request for a flexible schedule to accommodate childcare gaps, or for a mental health day? And, more importantly, are they demonstrating the wellness practices they preach (like not emailing during vacation)? 

Apart from feeling empowered by their higher-ups, managers also need ongoing education and guidance, adds Murray. “The average manager is not equipped to have a conversation or to support an employee who discloses a mental health symptom. We need to do more work to shore up our managers. Their job is not to diagnose, but they should be equipped to respond to someone or even to identify a person who might be experiencing a mental health crisis.” he says. 

When workplace wellness programs address employee’s top concerns, it’s a win for everyone: Employees who feel mentally supported at work are three times more comfortable talking about mental health with their managers and HR representatives, two-and-a-half times more likely to stay at their company for two-plus years, and over five times more likely to trust their company leadership and fellow employees.