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Should wellness programmes be made compulsory?

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Many studies indicate that wellbeing programmes can improve productivity and retention. But is making such programmes compulsory a help or hindrance to organisations and their workforces? In the latest Hays Journal, we explore the potential benefits and pitfalls of enforcing participation.

You would be hard pushed to find anybody who is willing to argue the case against wellness programmes. Statistics from United Healthcare show that 62 per cent of employees using them report productivity rises, 56 per cent have fewer sick days and 30 per cent even have a disease detected through health screenings.

A further study on workplace wellness programmes, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), found that participants in such schemes were more likely to feel that their management cared about their health.

David W. Ballard, Assistant Executive Director for Organisational Excellence at the American Psychological Association, explains: “Employee wellbeing and organisational performance are inextricably linked, so taking care of workers is not only the right thing to do as an employer, but it also makes good business sense.

“In a healthy workplace, employees benefit from better physical and mental health, increased job satisfaction and higher morale,” he continues. “Meanwhile, organisations can see improvements in performance and productivity, reduced absenteeism and turnover, while gaining a reputation as an employer of choice.”

But despite the benefits, the NBER study found that less than 39 per cent of eligible employees chose to participate at all. So, given the benefits for employer and employee alike, should it be a surprise that some organisations are implementing compulsory programmes?

Not every employee will get involved

“The question of compulsory programmes is a really interesting one,” says David Price, CEO of health and wellbeing firm Health Assured. “The biggest problem with wellbeing initiatives is that often, the biggest converts are the employees who are already very fit. Meanwhile, those with poor wellness – who employers really want to target – get left behind and don’t improve a company’s overall good health.”

KPMG was reported to have launched one such programme earlier in the year. The consultancy firm launched a three-day course for all UK-based auditors, known as ‘KPMG Audit University’. Compulsory sessions included mindfulness and yoga to help staff deal with the stress and scrutiny their job can entail.

More physically focused programmes have been introduced, too. In Sweden, so-called ‘compulsory exercise’ has been described as the country’s latest craze. Each Friday, staff at fashion and sportswear company Björn Borg are required to tools for a mandatory workout at a nearby gym, and other organisations (such as city water company Kalmar Vatten and consultancy Rotpartner) are following suit.

But will more employers really be tempted to make wellness mandatory? It seems that some organisations will take a bit of convincing.

Participation has to be down to the individual

In Russia, Anastasia Prechistenskaya is Head of Human Resources CIS at Group SEB – the French consortium that owns brands including Tefal and Krups. She says being part of a French-owned multinational company with high ‘Great Place to Work’ score already means that staff are well cared for, but earlier this year, she officially launched a wellbeing strategy (called ‘Take Care, Be Well’), because she feels that staff first need to be made aware of what’s there for them.

“We’re inviting experts to talk about diet and healthy eating, and we’ve begun a process to promote the benefits of doing sport and physical health, including having a yoga trainer in the office twice a week,” she says.

She says that building initial engagement was the biggest hurdle, but once it had been overcome, staff began making their own wellbeing requests. “We find that once people are engaged this way, it’s the small things that really make a difference. For instance, in Kazakhstan, staff asked if we could simply buy them an extra fridge, because that way we could help them bring in their own, healthier, home-made lunches.”

Now that awareness is there, she says she’ll be bringing in elements that are already successfully run in other Group SEB locations, like massages (currently offered to staff in Poland). “We want to make health part of our company culture,” she says. “But one thing is certain: making it mandatory would not be an option. Health comes from people’s hearts. They have to make their own decisions about whether to participate.”

There may be unintended consequences

Ballard also raises warnings when it comes to insisting on employee participation: “Although companies may have good intentions in mandating participation in wellness activities, those efforts can backfire if not executed properly — disrupting trust, heightening tensions and allowing cynicism to grow in the workplace.

“If employees are forced to participate in wellness activities, those who were already self-motivated to do so may begin to feel like it’s a chore. Similarly, those who participate against their will may take a compliance-based approach and do the bare minimum to meet requirements or avoid penalties.

“Unfortunately, this can lead to employees resenting programmes they might otherwise find valuable, and limit the gains achieved.”

“When an employer makes something compulsory, it means they are effectively deciding what’s important for employees and that is a significant use of power” argues Megan Reitz, Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge Business School – “it means these decisions need to be made rigorously, respectfully and ethically”. She is required to tussle with this conundrum herself, as she integrates mindfulness sessions into development training for high-potential executives.

And compulsory training doesn’t always work for staff, says Mike Blake, Wellbeing Lead at Willis Towers Watson’s health and benefits division. He argues that it’s the very ability to choose that engages them in the first place. “Some may want financial assistance more than health, or vice versa,” he adds.

Employers need to provide protection regardless

That’s not to say that employers shouldn’t be offering protection to their employees. Bruce Daisley is VP – EMEA at Twitter and host of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast. He says that changes in the way we are living mean that organisations must take new steps to look after their staff.

“I was reading a paper by banker turned academic Alexandra Michel – she looked at how the banking industry has been built on new hires working 120-hour weeks,” he explains. “It’s happened for a century, but in the last ten years – despite the fact that the toll of these working practices has always been brutal – there has been a shift. Young bankers have been collapsing, having breakdowns and sometimes worse.

“The difference is that our mobile phones have been filling the gaps. The bankers, who used to go home and sleep for six hours, are now not even achieving that. And for all the extremes of banking, we’re seeing the same damage in our own jobs too. Workplaces are seeing a great toll on workers and are having to take actions to help.”

However, Daisley agrees that mandatory wellness programmes are not the right approach: “Irrespective of the benefits, it’s not appropriate for firms to make it mandatory to join in schemes that are dealing with such personal psychological feelings.”

Cultural transformation must come first

Isaac Getz, Professor at the ESCP Europe School of Business, agrees that cultural change must come first. “Too many wellness programmes are like an aspirin,” he says, “in that they calm the fever but don’t hit the root cause of why it’s happening. Wellness programmes only work if everything else about being at work is in alignment too. There’s no point having meditation or resilience classes if managers are still overworking people; if the environment is too controlling; if there’s discrimination; or if there is no scope for autonomy. Wellness needs joining up to the business as a whole.”

One way in which employers have increased participation is through incentivisation. IBM has four wellbeing programmes comprised of training courses lasting 12 weeks. It wants staff to participate in them, and so, to attempt to make this happen, it offers a maximum of US$300 a year (US$150 for each course completed). As a result, it reports that 80 per cent of its 400,000-plus staff have signed up for at least one of the wellness programmes every year.

Other strategies employers could start to use include moving a greater proportion of their wellness options into employees’ flexible benefits pot – essentially forcing them to use them or lose them, and guaranteeing at least some engagement with wellbeing services.

Sue Baker, Director of the ‘Time To Change’ movement at mental health charity MIND, believes this is a good place to start. “Mental health sessions should certainly be encouraged or incentivised,” she says. “While the carrot is probably better than the stick, the business case for dealing with mental health can’t be ignored.”

She adds that, while making participation in wellness programmes compulsory may not be the right thing to do, staying more aware of employee mental health issues could come through the review process instead: “I can’t imagine why certain large companies couldn’t make having a mental health check-in part of their annual review, or part of joining in the first place.”

Changing the way we work

A further force that could see compulsory programmes become more commonplace is the spread of co-working spaces (growth of which has more than doubled in the past few years, according to office space analyst Cushman & Wakefield). Here, it’s the providers of workspaces (rather than the companies that locate there) that are now calling the shots from a wellbeing perspective. For instance, WeWork, the UK’s largest provider of co-working spaces (which also runs gym and yoga sessions at its locations), recently decided to ban meat in its canteens, and it promotes low-sugar, low-salt and slow glucose-releasing foods in the name of wellness.

Compulsory wellness

But Rob Hingston, boss of Origin Workspace (and former Group HR Manager at David Lloyd and HR Business Partner at Virgin Active), takes it a whole stage further: “Our wellbeing programme – comprising organised workouts, ‘work-out networking’ (where people meet other businesses in the building while working out), monthly jogs or runs, and orienteering 8km runs – are part of our culture. So much so, we use it to select the businesses that want to locate here.”

He adds: “We’re quite overt about it: if you want to work in this space, you need to join in with what we see as wellness. Compulsory is a strong word, but we’re keen to stress that tenants need to embrace the wellbeing element.”

Yet he does sympathise with businesses struggling to improve participation. “Even at David Lloyd, a health business with 6,000 staff, voluntary wellness was something we had to work very hard on to get buy-in from people.”

Finding the right balance

For some, the key is to take a balanced approach. Pip Hulbert is Chief Operating Officer at digital agency Wunderman, which has 10,000 employees in 70 countries. For them, like other organisations, engagement was key to seeing staff join these programmes. She says this creates trust, arguing that it makes wellness something that staff own, and that they are therefore more likely to participate in. However, the organisation has made some elements of wellness mandatory for leaders in the organisation.

The company has taken a more instructive approach when it comes to resilience; particularly in regards to their leaders. While companies can exercise control over their own culture, they are not necessarily able to protect their staff at all times from the challenges and stresses that come with their job.

If left unchecked, low emotional resilience among staff can lead to higher absence rates and affect mental health. A survey of 2,063 individuals entitled The Positive Effect of Resilience on Stress and Business Outcomes in Difficult Work Environments found that good resilience among workers in high-stress jobs protected them against depression, absence and low productivity.

Hulbert says that leaders at Wunderman are told they must attend sessions in this area – not least because it protects the organisation more widely.

She concludes: “It’s a big financial commitment, and I wanted to make sure as many people did it as possible, so we did mandate that all senior managers – those with people management responsibilities – attended it, purely because they need to be able to spot the signs early if people need help.”

So, while there certainly isn’t a consensus that a compulsory approach to wellness is the way forward, it seems that organisations are increasingly looking for ways to boost participation. Whether they’re leaning towards new engagement strategies that focus on health or pushing leaders to get involved in new schemes, many businesses are placing a greater emphasis on addressing wellness among staff.


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