Workplace Wellness Programs Are Not Equally Effective

By: Novelette A. DeMercado, MS

We have seen the headline: “Workplace Wellness Programs Don’t Work Well”.[i] Even with the offer of financial incentives, workplace wellness programs do not effectively change employees’ behaviors, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. So, dangling an Amazon gift card is not sufficient to incent long-lasting habits. The questions to be asked and answered are why and what could be done differently?

Workplace wellness programs cover over 50 million U.S. workers at a cost of $8 billion and for some it might sound like workplace wellness professionals are not doing a good job. There is good news in these study results: the results shine a light on ways to amplify inclusivity in workplace wellness programming, focusing the lens of multicultural competency, engaging all employees.

The Illinois Workplace Wellness (IWW) Study, the latest in a string of studies on workplace wellness programs reported lackluster results from a multi-year workplace wellness program. Those who take advantage of workplace wellness programs are often healthier people who do not spend a lot on health care, young employees, and mostly women in the dominant culture, as noted in the IWW study. Typically, workplace wellness programs are not designed to promote engagement and behavioral change for the vast majority in an organization.

The workplace, one of the most diverse places, is an increasingly segregated institution in terms of socioeconomic status, educational level, religious affiliation and race[ii], making it fertile ground for providing culturally competent wellness programs. As wellness professionals, we must always ask ourselves if the lack of consideration for the needs of employees outside of the dominant cultural context is intentional. Undervaluing and deprioritizing the needs of a diverse employee population may be due to blind spots that need to be explored – through self-reflection as well as a deep inquiry as to who is not participating in wellness programs and why.

The employees at our organizations are influenced by their race, gender, generation, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and many more identities or experiences, which need to be incorporated into wellness offerings. Since the human brain is not wired for objective evaluation but programmed to justify its own viewpoints, you must carefully consider the design, delivery, and evaluation of offerings to combat this propensity.

What mindsets are you bringing to the process of developing and delivering workplace wellness programs? People with a growth mindset have a love of learning; they seek out challenges focusing on self-development. Click this link to take this quick a mindset quiz.

An essential ingredient that wellness professionals can bring to the process is curiosity, which reflects the ability to inquire with an open mind, plus a strong dose of self-awareness to critically explore the biases at play. As humans, we’re not bias neutral – so exploring the biases informing program decisions, and then honestly appraising how they impede the program’s vision, is critical. Widely offering a “Wellness App” with no other strategy does not constitute a wellness program. Think about those who are not encouraged to participate simply by the types of activities and offerings that are rolled out.

A narrowly-focused wellness program, one that might only offer programs in the physical domain, excludes a portion of the workplace. What dimension(s) of wellness is (are) missing from the workplace wellness program design and delivery? What are you doing to invite and encourage individuals who are not currently engaged in your wellness programs?

“We see what we look for, and we look for what we know.” What is that you have not seen in the development of your workplace wellness program? Who is missing? How might we approach a more multiculturally competent workplace program?

Innovate and transform your wellness initiative, because doing so will add value and meaning to the process, and will enhance a culture of wellness for all, without exception. You will also see an increase in participation which increases your chance to make a behavior change impact. With the input of team members and members of the workforce, ask: What needs to be explored? What needs are surfacing? Which elements need to be tweaked and what should be added? The below suggestions are offered, not as a check-off activity but as an opportunity to widen the scope of the engagement.

Suggestions for a more multiculturally competent workplace wellness program:

  • Create programs aimed at helping all employees through the lens of multicultural competency:
    • Know and understand your population
    • Race, ethnicity, age, gender, languages, education, job roles, income, and living environment all need to be understood to better target and tailor education, environmental supports, and behavior change interventions
  • Frame it to help employees foster behaviors that amplify their sense of well-being beyond the physical domain:
    • Listen to employees
    • What methods are in place for employees to share feedback regularly about their engagement in the program
  • Partner with organizations that have expertise in the areas that is expressed as a need by employees:
    • Look for internal and external environmental support that “make health and wellness the easier choice”
    • Form a wellness employee resource group with the intent to learn from and engage the employees at your organization

Training will only get you so far. Transformational change occurs when we understand why and how we do the things that we do and when you have a deep understanding of human behavior beyond stereotypes, driving meaningful change at all levels of the organization. Transformational change requires an open mind which is continuously learning and adapting to the changing landscapes, grounded in the value of providing culturally competence inclusive behavioral change programs.

Passion, professional acumen, and training are foundational to our success as wellness professionals. Now more than ever, a multiculturally competent lens will aid in reimagining future programs that fully represent our organizations.

i Greenfield, R. (2018). Workplace Wellness Programs Really Don’t Work. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-26/workplace-wellness-programs-really-don-t-work

ii Murray, C. (2012). Coming Apart: The State of White America. Crown.

References

Aldana, S. (2018). 14 Reasons many corporate health and wellness programs fail. https://www.wellsteps.com/blog/2020/01/02/corporate-health-and-wellness-programs/

Cook, D. (2015). The real reason companies offer wellness programs. https://www.benefitspro.com/2015/03/12/the-real-reason-companies-offer-wellness-programs/

Crute, D.G. (2020). The Path to Cultural Competence in Workplace Wellness. Worksite Health International, 11 (1), 5-9.

Dweck, Carol S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.

Gordon, N.F., Salmon, R.D., Wright, B.S., Faircloth, G.C., Reid, K.C., and Gordon, T.L. (2017). Clinical Effectiveness of Lifestyle Health Coaching. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 112, 153-166.

Hankel, A. and Green, K. (2020). A perspective on purpose in the workplace. Worksite Health International, 11(1), 13-14.

Harris, M. (2020). Ineffective Workplace Wellness. Stanford Social: Innovation Review.

Jones, D. Molitor, D., and Reif, J. (2019) What do workplace wellness programs do? Evidence for the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 134(4), 1747-1791.

Menzies, F. How does employee well-being link to diversity and inclusion? https://cultureplusconsulting.com/2018/08/17/how-does-employee-well-being-link-to-diversity-and-inclusion/

Ross, Howard J. (2018). Our Search for Belonging: How our need to connect is tearing us apart. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


Novelette A. DeMercado, MS, is a health and wellness coach, President of MyMemberWellness ERG, a member of the Inclusion Advisory Council at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, member and past co-chair of NWI’s Multicultural Competency Committee, and Co-Chair of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.