Is corporate wellness still an oxymoron?

Corporate wellness, employee wellbeing, staff satisfaction… They’re not new terms, but they have taken on a whole new significance since the pandemic began. But that was nearly 2 years ago. Why are companies still getting corporate wellness so ridiculously wrong? And how can young startups do better for their staff?

Ronald Purser describes mindfulness as ‘the new capitalist spirituality, a disciplined myopia that mindlessly ignores the need for social and political change’. Yowza.

In McMindfulness, Purser argues that Buddhist principles have been packaged up and resold to workers as a way to help them fit in with capitalist structures – not escape them. 

Organisations from Google to the US military are cynically using mindfulness – amongst other types of “corporate wellness” initiatives – to tick CSR boxes, get more productivity out of their employees, and make mental health issues less of a viable excuse for sick days. 

The truth is, in many cases, it’s the nature of modern work that’s the problem. Not the employee’s mental state.

Is corporate wellness even a thing? Is any company on the face of the earth getting it right? 

What does corporate wellness even mean?

Almost all Western companies and conglomerates have either decided or been forced against their will to run initiatives supporting employee wellbeing. Things were bad before, but the pandemic stretched global mental and physical health to its limits. The numbers are now unignorable. 

We wish we could say it’s a compassionate move. But the depressing truth is companies are moving on it because it’s affecting the bottom line. Depression and anxiety are costing the Canadian economy CAD $50 billion a year. The numbers for the US are even more eye-watering. In Australia, workplace mental health injuries rose by 80% in 2020 at an estimated cost of $17 billion.

Employee unhappiness is decimating company profits in two ways: absenteeism (missing work) and “presenteeism” (attending work but with a reduced ability to function). 

Time to get those corporate wellness levels boosted up.

The remote work paradox 

The Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 67% of Australians are now temporarily or permanently working from home, compared to 42% pre-Covid. That’s an unprecedented jump in remote working policies, and it’s the same situation in many other developed countries.

In many cases, remote work has improved worker productivity. One Harvard study used Ctrip, a leading Chinese travel agency, as their lab rat. Call centre workers got to choose whether they worked in the office or at home. Those at home made 13.5% more calls than those who worked at the office, and Ctrip saved an average of $1,900 per employee on furniture and space in nine months.

The study mirrors countless others. The answer to “how do we make employees well?” seems blindingly obvious: listen to them. Give them trust and autonomy. Let them structure their own days from their own homes, if they choose. If they want to come in to socialise, that should be facilitated too. Isolation and digital fatigue come with problems of their own – problems that can also be addressed by listening to workers’ individual concerns.

But there’s one problem: middle management.

An entire generation of managers is now endangered. If employees work just as well – or even better – without over-the-shoulder management, why are their jobs even necessary? It’s no wonder they’re clinging to outdated systems and cloying for a return to offices. 

The middle managers who have successfully got their subordinate cohort back at their desks can’t ignore the wellness problem. But their perspectives are biased, and their attempts at addressing it cack-handed.

Why are companies’ corporate wellness attempts so bad?

Lack of listening/understanding. Even when they care, companies don’t know how to help. Instead of listening to employee feedback (“We’d like to work remotely”, “We’d like suitable vacation time”), they hire in-house psychologists or personal trainers to promote wellness. It’s at best ill-informed and at worst a way of retaining control. It’s not that a gym subscription or in-house psychologist doesn’t help promote health, but letting employees feel listened to, not stigmatising them, and bestowing them with a bit of autonomy can have much better benefits.

Individual rather than structural focus. Mental health challenges are complex and often have structural causes rather than individual. Corporate wellness programs place responsibility on the worker when the problem could be much more profound. When a government neglects and underfunds mental health services, no amount of corporate wellness efforts will fix that structural problem. 

Historic intransigence. When a system works for those in power, nothing changes. Employees continue to be ignored no matter how many thousands or millions are suffering. It’s taken a global pandemic to kickstart the remote working revolution even though it’s been possible for years. 

How do you do corporate wellness well?

Let’s take a moment to look at Active & Thriving, a young, digital mental wellness platform for the corporate space that’s based on Adaptive Behavioural Components Theory (ABC). Unlike most of its competitors, it’s based on three categories for well-being: the physical, the mental, and the social. 

The social focus is what makes Active & Thriving truly unique in the market. The idea, in the words of CEO Josh Marsden, is that: “If you roll out a wellbeing programme at an individual level, people are likely to drop out. But if you roll it out as a community effort… program champions and engaged staff can directly influence the harder to reach cohort of people.” 

Active & Thriving is also working to bridge the disconnect between prevention and intervention. All too often, prevention methods like awareness sessions and mental health screenings are not following through with ongoing support. So when it gets to crisis point, it’s straight to extreme measures. 

What companies are getting so horribly wrong is this suggestion that it’s not us, it’s you. It’s not the 50 hour weeks – it’s your mindset that’s the problem. 

The only antidote is genuine compassion, where all three pillars of wellbeing – physical, mental, and social – are nurtured.

That, and government funding. Corporations cannot be left unsupervised. Policymakers also have a major role to play, and some progress is being made. While they catch up, companies and startups can do better by:

Not stigmatising. Promote open conversation.

Appointing wellness people. Challenge the status quo of HR teams that work solely for the employer’s interests. If you’re not big enough for these types of hires, mental healthcare platforms like Modern Health, BetterUp, and Spring Health can help.

Leading by example. Company culture emanates from the top down. A CEO who doesn’t model taking vacations and lunch breaks can reinforce an anti-vacation culture.

Some leading examples to finish with…

  • Last August, Nike closed its offices for a week as a mandatory vacation for its corporate workers.
  • The women-focused dating app Bumble gave employees a week off last June to recover from burnout.
  • Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange, recently announced four full weeks of vacation when it will shut down most of its operations to let employees recharge. 
  • Bolt recently announced a permanent 4-day work weeks for its employees after a trial that saw positive results.
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