The Dark Side of Workplace Wellness

The Report on Business section of the Globe and Mail newspaper recently ran an interview with the authors of a provocative new book, The Wellness Syndrome. The authors, Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer,  argue that the ideal of “wellness” has become distorted into a “dangerous ideology”. Promoting “wellness” as a virtue, they suggest, implicitly promotes discrimination against those who have difficulty being “well”, such as people with chronic weight or health issues. And framing “wellness” as an individual issue deflects attention from larger societal conditions, such as poverty, that have much more impact on an individual’s health than their individual choices. (For example, it’s hard to get regular outdoor exercise if you live in an unsafe neighbourhood, or to eat well if the stores in your area don’t stock healthy, affordable food.)

The authors’ perspectives make a lot of sense. And, I would argue, their take on the misuse of “wellness” is also applicable to many “workplace wellness” initiatives.  There are good employers with sincere intentions who run “workplace wellness” programs because they genuinely care about their employees’ well-being. But there are other, less admirable aspects to some of these programs.

  • “Workplace wellness” programs may be instituted strictly as a cost-saving measure – on the assumption if employees are healthier, the employer can reduce its expenditure on health-related employee benefits. But it’s not always possible to accurately demonstrate that the presence or absence of a “wellness” program has a direct relationship to the costs of employee benefits. And if it can’t be proven that the program generates cost reductions, the program may be modified or cancelled – causing the loss of whatever positive effects the program might have produced.
  • “Workplace wellness” programs may be used by the employer to distract attention from less desirable aspects of the organizational culture. For example, many video game companies promote the fact that their employees have access to “wellness” perks such as onsite gyms, or healthy menu options in subsidized cafeterias. But the video game industry is also characterized by a “culture of overwork” , with long hours, accelerated production timelines, and erratic short-notice scheduling. It could be argued that employers are being somewhat unethical if they promote “workplace wellness” as a benefit while at the same time permitting unhealthy workplace norms to flourish.
  • An employer may institute “workplace wellness” programs not to improve employees’ health, but as a way to counteract generalized employee discontent, or as a way to portray itself to the external environment as “caring” or “employee focused”. When I researched the history of the Workers’ Sports Association of Canada – an organization that rose up partly in opposition to employer-sponsored “bosses’ sport” – I came across many examples of employers that started company sport or social activities around the same time that their workers expressed dissatisfaction with their workplace conditions, or when workers at similar organizations went on strike. Although these programs weren’t called “workplace wellness” at that time (1930s), they nevertheless show how “workplace wellness” programs need to be used honestly, and have honest underlying motivations, to be successful.
  • And a “workplace wellness” program will be largely ineffective if it’s the workplace itself, not individual behaviour or choices, that’s affecting employees’ health. I once had a conversation with a counsellor at a company that provided EAP (Employee Assistance Program) services for employers. If an employee was having personal problems like stress that were affecting their work, the employer would refer them to this company, and a counsellor would work with the employee to address the problems. This person told me, “I feel like my work is a Band-Aid. I patch these people up, and then I send them right back into the work situation that stressed them out in the first place.”  Employers can’t rely completely on “workplace wellness” programs to make their employees “better” – they also need to acknowledge and fix  workplace conditions that might cause employees to become unwell.

I’m looking forward to reading The Wellness Syndrome. Its challenging perspective might be a catalyst for more critical and thoughtful examinations of  the use – and abuse – of “wellness” at work.



    1. I understand your desire to remove the word. But I still feel wellness is a good word. At the very least, I still feel a positive emotion regarding the word. But like many good words, it could become a hypocritical term to me also, if used like the article described. And that would be too bad, because we need more words denoting health and positive conditions.

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