Your Wellness Program Just Crossed the Line Into Weird

your wellness program is weird

Free food is consistently one of the most popular work perk not directly related to work itself (i.e. flexibility, half days). People love to eat for free and FS Investments is happy to give all of its employees three free meals a day… so long as they participate in the company’s “all-encompassing” wellness program. During the onboarding process new hires meet with trainer Chris Serrano and nutritionist Becki Rabena, who will determine what exactly your free meals will look like, and are encouraged to take advantage of the company’s 24 hour gym and its fitness classes. Serrano does a fitness assessment that he, along with Rabena, uses to slot new hires into one of five food zones, all of which are designed to optimize employees’ health and wellness – and productivity.

What Is Your Wellness Program For?

Over at Bloomberg, Rebecca Greenfield asks why wellness programs have become a $6.8 billion industry when they don’t save company’s money. They can’t prevent the most costly medical events or work abscesses and they haven’t been shown to reduce health care costs in the long term. And very few health and wellness programs have a positive impact on retention. If they don’t save money, why are businesses investing so much in them? This though, isn’t the right question. Savings is the justification for wellness programs but it’s not the primary driver of wellness program spending. Far more than money, wellness programs are about feelings.

There is a huge disparity between perks employees want and perks employers want to give. Some of this gap is the natural tension between employees wanting the most flexibility and highest wages possible, and employers wanting the most productivity and lowest wages possible – capitalism, basically. But other disparities are stranger. According to one study only 14% of employees want company-sponsored stress management resources, while 32% of employers offer them. Only 8% of employees want on-site vaccinations or health screenings, while 25% of employers offer and encourage use of them. 14% of employees want wellness contests and incentives, but 32% of employers offer them. There is a more than 50% gap between interest in and availability of these programs.

Employers aren’t offering the perks their workers want, they’re offering the perks they think workers should want.

How Involved Should You Be In Wellness?

Wellness programs are notorious for low participation rates but three quarters of FS Investments employees are signed up for the food program. That high participation rate is due to how the company has designed the program to be a basic and encompassing part of its employees work life from day one – their health and wellness program is just part and parcel of working at FS Investments. A lot of employees voluntarily participating in any of your programs, wellness or otherwise, sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? It sounds like that ever elusive high employee engagement – but what exactly are FS Investments employees engaged with?

I think the answer is in how CEO Michael Forman describes the value of the program. He touts the high participation rate alongside weight loss anecdotes. Losing weight and getting more active can be good (though even people working with nutritionists commonly gain it all back plus more) but it’s not something I want my employer involved in. (For one thing, my employer doesn’t know my full medical history.) He also mentions that the company’s health care costs have been dropping year-over-year – something I’d be interested in hearing more about since outside research tends to show that this isn’t the case.

FS Investments has a wellness program participation rate because they’ve made wellness a core company value – which means that employees who don’t choose to be “well” or “fit” are out of step with the company culture. Not all employees can participate in these programs – ironically, for physical and mental health reasons – and frankly, no employees should be pressured to do so. Forman says that wellness is important to the company because it leads to higher productivity. Wellness, therefore, is just another part of managing your people right. But I question the impulse to fine tune performance to this degree, making the workplace, not the home, the place around which employees’ lives revolve. Ensuring all your employees are getting healthy meals might seem nice, but doesn’t taking control of these basic decisions tilt work-life balance dangerously in favour of work?

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Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Former recruiter, HR pro and Workology editor. Comics, cheese and political economy.

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