Why Corporate Wellness Programs are a Waste of Time and Money

Let’s face it. Most corporate wellness programs are a waste of time and money. And they’re no small waste at that. The global corporate wellness market is currently worth US$56.7 billion and is projected to reach US$87.3 billion by 2026 at annual growth rates of 7.3%. But this doesn’t even account for employee hours and diminished productivity.

And what do we have to show for all of those RUOK? programs, guided meditations, mindfulness, and yoga classes? Ballooning workplace stress and bottoming out employee engagement.

We have eighty-three percent of American workers today suffering from workplace stress, followed by about 60 percent of Britons, Germans, and Canadians.

This has all sorts of downstream physiological consequences, such as cardiovascular disease, psychological disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, impaired immune function, impaired personal relationships, and ultimately in the most extreme cases, suicide.

Not only that, but Gallup also found that 85 percent of people globally are either disengaged or not engaged at work.

Sure, you could argue that the numbers would be even worse in the absence of these programs. But it’s hard to imagine the numbers being much higher, and at the very least, we should consider the efficacy of existing corporate wellness programs mildly effective at best.

For all their best intentions, the fact is that corporate wellness programs amount to a hodgepodge of band-aid solutions to cultural and systemic workplace problems.

The Root Causes of Workplace Stress

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and numerous other inquiries into the causes of workplace stress, the following four reasons reign supreme.

  • Work-life balance conflicts
  • Excessive workload
  • Lack of autonomy or control
  • People and politics issues

When we dissect corporate wellness interventions, none address the abovementioned underlying drivers of stress at work.

A simple scan of high-ranking corporate wellness programs on Google (such as this one) reveals a suite of the same old activities:

  • Mental health training
  • Stress management
  • Resilience workshops
  • Meditation and mindfulness classes
  • Corporate yoga classes
  • Tai chi
  • Corporate fitness bootcamps
  • Team building exercises

Each of these on their own has its merits, and I am a student and practitioner of several of them, but it’s easy to see that they don’t do anything to address work-life balance, towering workloads, or toxic office politics.

How to Address the Root Causes of Workplace Stress

If we want to address the root cause and set the right foundations for our people to thrive, the following actionable steps would be a great start.

1. Stop the meeting madness

According to Bartleby’s Law, for 80% of people, 80% of their meetings are a waste of time.

People spend between 15–20 hours a week in meetings, and senior executives say that 71% of their meetings are unproductive and inefficient. Having shorter meetings, inviting only necessary people, and defaulting to other asynchronous forms of communication in lieu of meetings will put downwards pressure on these time and energy killers that permeate the working world.

Want to learn more? Read How to Have Masturbation Free Meetings…Seriously

2. Encourage greater asynchronous communication

So much of how we communicate today is real-time — Slack and Teams messages, email, Zoom calls, and so on. This leaves people robbed of the ability to sit, think, and get things done, and keeps them in a day-long cycle of hyperresponsiveness that slowly but surely robs them of their cognitive energy, leaving them feeling exhausted and unfulfilled come to the end of the day. Embracing tools such as task boards to manage communication gives people more control over their day and more time to get things done.

Read Asynchronous Communication 101

3. Give people more freedom to make decisions and take action

As organizations get bigger and more successful, we put in place processes and systems to protect the core business model. Still, these inadvertently rob people of the ability to make decisions, take actions, and innovate. Most decisions are not consequential and are irreversible. By empowering people to make such decisions, we can instill them with greater motivation and ownership of their work and empower our organizations to be more innovative.

Read The Process Fallacy Slowly Killing Large Companies and How Delegations of Authority Destroy Innovation and Employee Morale

4. Create a culture of psychological safety

Suppose people don’t feel comfortable speaking up or trying things for fear of being reprimanded, made to look small, or demonized. In that case, they will effectively navigate the organization as shadows of themselves. They will censor themselves as one might under an authoritarian dictatorship. When we do that, we’re preventing ourselves from self-actualization and getting to the upper wrungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Read this HBR article for more on how to create psychological safety at work.

5. Hire people that are aligned with the mission of the organization and the strengths required to get the job done

These might sound like no-brainers, but they are worth stressing. According to Gallup research, we are 6-times more likely to be engaged by our jobs if we’re strengths-aligned. Meanwhile, the research firm also found that purpose-led companies have a 67 percent higher level of employee retention. These numbers alone should give cause for pause and reflection when it comes to our recruitment processes.

Read The Science on Purpose at Work and Play To Your Strengths

Compared to the band-aid solutions presented earlier, the above five steps specifically address the root causes outlined.

Less meetings and more asynchronous communication will help people better manage their workloads and get more work-life balance.

Giving people more authority to make decisions will give them a greater sense of ownership and control over their work.

Creating more psychological safety, and making better hiring decisions, will help to address both the people and political issues, as well as the difficulties that arise when people are only at work for a paycheck.

Corporate wellness programs have a place, but until the root causes that underpin workplace stress are addressed, they will typically amount to little more than lipstick on a pig.