Your Corporate Wellness Program Is Bull$h*! And How To Fix It
I scroll through Linkedin, past the posts of self-promotion that end with a sales pitch, or plagiarized quotes shared without credit to they who spoke or wrote it, and through a forest of promoted pages, to find a Boston based company welcoming a new class of employees. A symbol of growth. Congrats.
There’s a photo. It’s of their employee’s new workstations. Here, they find a branded reusable water bottle, Chromebook, T-shirt, and their name spelled in Starbursts. Flavors distributed evenly, the shortest name using 47 individually wrapped candies. They’ll then accept the recurring invite set for Thursday at 4 pm titled “Happy Hour”, and mark as read an email reminding all employees that on Friday there will be baked goods in honor of a marketing manager’s final day.
Offline, it keeps going. At 10 am they’ll be introduced to the company, awkwardly high fiving all 137 employees en route to the gong, “That’s the only free gong you’ll get!” yells an overexcited Account Executive who laughs hardest at his own…jokes?
And by noon, they’ll have keycards that grant them access to the building, which will come in handy when they return from lunch with their team.
For a moment, I drank the kool-aid.
Being self-employed, I was swept up in the excitement of having teammates, being gifted a new laptop, and the thought of direct deposit or opting into a company health insurance package.
But only for a moment.
Did I really want to join a company whose first impression was to welcome me with my name spelled out in Starbursts (My name is longer than John and would need at least 60), invite me to a drinking affair, and remind me I’ll be able to skip breakfast Friday and sample sweets all day?
Now, Starbursts aren’t the enemy and, aside from the sheer lack of originality of the desk spread, I understand their intended use was to welcome a new teammate with something cute and familiar. But, having dove deep enough into health and wellness these past few years, that is not a strong enough justification for putting 129 grams of sugar on a person’s desk. We know better. Or we should know better.
We should know better because of the science available. We should know that sugar is actively harmful to humans. Just look at these ingredients: Corn Syrup, Sugar, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Fruit Juice from Concentrate, Less than 2% Citric Acid, Tapioca Dextrin, Gelatin, Modified Corn Starch, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Coloring.
It’s everything we know to stay away from.
Each time we make a purchase, we are voting for something. So, we should know that spending company money to provide sugar in such large quantities is the equivalent to gifting obesity and cardiovascular disease, or at least stating we support the pursuit of these diseases through poor dietary choices. The company that welcomes employees with a gift of 129 grams of sugar is not evil. What this company has done though, is leave the door open just wide enough for a larger conversation to be had.
A conversation that sheds light on the truth that our workplaces are not that healthy and advertised corporate wellness programs lack depth and accountability despite being used to impress candidates during an interview or search process.
For this conversation, we must first assign an updated definition to health and wellness. Health is defined as the overall mental and physical state of a person; the absence of disease. Wellness refers to the state of being in optimal mental and physical health. I accept this, but optimal mental and physical health is a state of being, and these definitions fail to include actions that can deliver a person to this state. Health and wellness is what you eat, how you move your body, how you sleep, how you manage stress, how you speak to yourself, how you speak to others, how you create community, and how you love.
Health and wellness is as much a practice, as it is a report card.
Over the past 2 decades, what I call “wallpaper” perks have popped up under the benefits section of job descriptions. They are appealing, but a bit deceptive. First, it was ping-pong, then it was beer on tap in the office, now it’s corporate wellness. Interview at almost any Tech company and they’ll tell you about their wellness program. You’ll learn this may be a gym subsidy, $25 per month for riding your bike to work (I do love this one), quarterly yoga in the office, or even Sam’s 10k Step Challenge every February.
“Wow, how the fuck do I get a job here” the candidate is supposed to reply.
Shut up, candidate. This is an insult.
For a company to pride themselves on having flexible schedules, work-life balance, and a robust corporate wellness program, only to then populate office kitchens with high-sodium, high sugar, processed foods, and 24/7 access to beer taps is deceptive and wrong.
The actions don’t match the advertisement.
To use wellness as a recruitment tool, without the intention or ability to offer a complete program is short-sighted and unfair. It’s a tactic that will decrease retention and expresses that leadership doesn’t care really care about their employees.
With poor diet being the second leading preventable cause of death in the United States, behind Tobacco, it’s time to move to the three-position: Alcohol
The use of alcohol as bait for new candidates and a team-building activities is tragic.
33.1% of people over the age of 18 report that in the past month they have engaged in either binge drinking or heavy alcohol use.
14.1 million adults ages 18 and up report having AUD (alcohol use disorder)
88,006 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. The first is tobacco, and the second is poor diet and physical inactivity.
I should end this piece here because a sensible person in a position of power would immediately address their company culture and issue new policies to address the health and wellness of their employees, BUT, I am having fun so let’s continue.
Not only is alcohol dangerous and addictive, but it is packaged with an economic burden (I bet your CFO is thrilled that you encourage this weekly consumption!) through direct purchase and when considering performances relationship to alcohol.
Or dare I continue and discuss anxiety’s relationship with alcohol, or sleep’s relationship with alcohol. You cannot control how someone behaves or reacts to alcohol, but by asking them to stop their productive workday at 4 pm on a Thursday and drink alcohol you’re doing your best to find out.
The provision of alcohol does not strengthen company culture, it enables potential destructive behavior and habits. Consider what happens when an employee leaves work, inhibitions lowered, or even the next day when nursing a hangover, taking extended coffee breaks until lunch, which we know won’t be of ideal nutrition, but no worries because we have an abundance of baked sweets in the kitchen to fill us up. Enjoy your direct-deposit with an end of week spiral! Sigh.
Bringing people together for team-building is critical to the success of an organization. Using alcohol to excite team members alienates those that choose not to drink, promotes controversial values, and quite frankly lacks creativity. The weekly happy hour, in fact, encourages a loss of production and spoon-feeds employees a beverage that 4% of the US population is addicted to and over 30% misuses on a regular basis.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” — Mark Twain
If alcohol is the only way you bring your team together then you have significant identity issues. Ones, that band-aid beer bottles can’t fix. The challenge is to create team-building and bonding exercises that EVERY OTHER COMPANY doesn’t do, and truly invest in your team.
Now, at this point, you may want to trip the high horse that I am riding on, especially if you’re in Talent Acquisition or have an HR function, but I feel I’ve earned this stage. I worked in the recruiting space, I am sober for 2 years, and I am in the depths of sugar addiction. I have no talking points about equity, incentives, accelerators, or company cards, I only have them for things I am qualified to speak to. Qualified, because what I do know is is that stocking an office with addictive substances is wrong. Alcohol and sugar are addictive. And before you argue “It’s my body, I control what I put in it” or advocate for personal responsibility, understand that, traits of addictions aside, for a company to spend their money to supply these goods, and then require an individual to be in the presence of these goods for 40+ hours per week, is actively voting against their employee’s personal wellness. Nevermind the creation of an arena to directly challenge those who have chosen sobriety or pursue healthy eating patterns. This is why companies must confront their “Wellness Programs” and determine whether or not they have a complete program, or are willing to invest in one.
But What Should Corporate Wellness Look Like?
A complete corporate wellness program addresses all aspects of an employee’s health and wellness.
A company does not need to institute a complete ban on certain food and beverages, but they should not spend money on high sugar, high sodium, processed foods or alcohol. If employees want to spend their money on these items, they are welcome to, but a company can not be bringing these into their workplace and offering them.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” — Hippocrates
We’ve known for thousands of years the power of food.
With a rise in Millenials in the workforce and a decline in Millenial's health, leading them to be the least healthy generation, employers no longer can reject science that proves plant-based nutrition programs in a workplace setting significantly improve depression, anxiety, and productivity, when ordering team lunches or stocking shelves. At the very least, employers must begin to introduce policies that suggest better consumption if they want to be considered to have a complete corporate wellness program.
Companies must encourage movements with a low barrier to entry. By introducing an inclusive benchmark, it is more inviting to employees and more sustainable. This can take the shape of monthly step challenges (but please have a great reward), natural commuter subsidies (bike, walk, run), or really embrace this and pursue relationships with local studios where your employees will receive a significant discount.
Companies can also create a group in a platform like Strava, a social fitness network, which allows cross profile engagement in and out of the office, or host a Slack channel for #NaturalMovement #Running or #AfternoonWalks. These are small introductions that leverage team accountability — If you see teammates 1–5 having fun on a run, maybe you’ll join the next one — and when compounded contribute greatly to your office’s wellbeing.
SLEEP & STRESS
We can not control the home environments of our employees, but we can make sure we do not intrude on them. Complete corporate wellness programs must have policies that respect rest and life outside of work. Suggested policies include:
Observe rolling hours with no scheduled meetings before 10 am or after 4 pm.
No emailing between the hours of 8 pm and 7 am.
No eating lunch at your desk or with a laptop.
Publicly reward those who have an appropriate work-life balance through creative challenges.
Create a sacred meditation room.
Offer subscriptions to meditation apps to all employees.
Begin meetings with 2-minute meditations.
Appoint a Chief Wellness Officer
If an employee reports that they need more time to finish their work outside of work, then we must assume that either their workload is too large for their position, the company does not have sufficient personnel, or management has failed to train them for their position. What’s not acceptable is encouraging this employee to work harder or longer. Hard work and hustle, in most cases, will be recognized, but they will never beat quality of work. A complete corporate wellness program is set-up to deliver the best quality of work possible.
These suggestions actively work against burnout and the narrative that we must always be working. When implemented and managed correctly they have the potential to completely update an office culture for the better.
COMMUNITY, LANGUAGE & LOVE
Eating without devices, and joining company run clubs have been previously suggested, but with alternate desired outcomes. The benefit of many well-crafted wellness policies are their ripple effects. Eating without a device provides the opportunity to dine with another, and company run clubs bring teammates together. What these both foster is community.
Community, language, and love are the less tangible components of a wellness program, but this is exciting. With less of a blueprint, Chief Wellness Officer’s can create company-specific policies. Consider communication.
Rather than sign emails or slack messages Thank You, encourage employees to insert an emotion or a feeling. This may manifest as With Gratitude, An Excited Teammate, With Great Appreciation, or Kindly, personal words that still mean something. Or, play a weekly game called Proud-Admire, where teammates pair off and begin by telling their partner what they are proud of themselves for, and what they admire the other for. Small offerings, with great rewards.
And we shouldn’t always motivate with rewards, but if we are going to ask companies to truly invest in corporate wellness programs we must be willing to share the anticipated return.
RETENTION & INCENTIVES
41% of employees would take a 10% pay cut for a company that cares more about their health and wellness. With a healthier workforce, we can forecast spending less on health care, preserving more funds for wages, events, or wellness. By investing in employee wellness programs, companies see a return in the quality of work, increased employee satisfaction, and decreased medical spending. A healthier and happier workforce leads to higher retention, decreased HR spending, and more efficient business.
If all roads lead to Rome, then all wellness programs lead to the Argentarii.
A decade ago companies began increasing the availability of alcohol in their workplaces in an effort to recruit top talent. Today, that same top talent agrees that 24/7 access to craft beer taps no longer excites them.
They’re incentivized by wellness programs now.
Though it may not be a companies responsibility to promote the wellbeing of its employees, there are significant reasons to do so. Sometimes, a wellness program may not require the introduction of new activities, so much as the ending of outdated ones.
I believe it’s time for companies across the States to wake up. If Tobacco, Diet, and Alcohol are the three leading causes of preventable death, why do we only banish one from our offices, and actively invite the other two in?
To completely outlaw all alcohol, or poor diet choices, may be too extreme for some, but what is reasonable to ask is that employers no longer actively participate in the decline of their employee's health by purchasing and providing food and drink that is known to harm them.
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