Corporate Wellness Doesn’t Make Employees Healthier or Happier: Here’s How to Fix It

Are those free gym memberships really making your employees healthier? 

By Dr. Robin Berzin

The modern workforce needs corporate wellness now more than ever. But most companies just aren’t getting it right.

It’s no secret that we’re working ourselves sick. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million Americans, and depression affects 16 million. In 2011, doctors wrote 75 million prescriptions for the anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. Concurrently, autoimmune disease is skyrocketing in young women and now affects 50 million people. And over 66 percent of American adults are overweight or obese.

This isn’t to mention one of the most pervasive problems I see at my own medical practice, Parsley Health — intense burnout.

Corporate wellness has ballooned to a $6 billion industry. But many of these companies are designing programs primarily with their bottom line in mind, not the actual health of the employee. They are designing services that can easily get past the gauntlet of bureaucratic red tape in large corporate human resources departments and allow them to make a large enterprise sale.

Well-meaning companies want to offer wellness perks like on-demand doctors and free gym memberships to their employees. But sadly these don’t often move the needle when it comes to improving employee health.

Why? There are two main issues. The first is measurement and analysis. Most companies don’t realize how unhealthy their employees are or what is actually ailing them. I talk to HR leads all the time who tell me their workforce is “young and healthy.” But this is just anecdotal observation. No one bothers to collect information on how healthy or unhealthy their employees actually are and there may be a lot more going on under the surface.

The second issue is that many corporate wellness programs don’t deliver measurable improvements in health, they just create data that looks good on paper and may even waste money.

These are the top six mistakes with corporate wellness I see weekly when I talk to HR leads:

1. On-demand doctors don’t improve long-term wellness.

Most employees use these as Band-Aids to treat things like a sinus infection, a sore throat or food poisoning; things that result in obtaining a prescription drug.

This is all well and good for the moment, but it never gets to the root cause of the problem and it also contributes to a system that vastly over-prescribes both antibiotics and painkillers to the detriment of patients. Bottom line: These services don’t make people happier and healthier, they just make getting a prescription drug (which is often unnecessary) more convenient.

2. Easy isn’t the same as healthy.

I’ve spoken with top tech companies who offer on-demand doctors, free gym memberships and up to $2,000 a year in “wellness dollars.” This money can be spent on anything from dry cleaning to pet care.

None of this makes the 28-year-old developer with severe psoriasis requiring regular dermatology visits and causing considerable stress any healthier. None of this helps the 35-year-old woman who isn’t sure if she can get pregnant because she has irregular periods, but doesn’t want to do IVF (in-vitro fertilization) automatically. None of this helps the mom of two who is back in the workforce dealing with crushing fatigue and weight gain that makes her depressed. And none of this helps the 45-year-old man popping acid-reflux meds, which lead to poor protein absorption, nutrient depletion and bloating, avoid an unnecessary $2,000 colonoscopy.

While “easy” may look good on paper, companies would better serve their employees if they helped them address their health problems with expert medical advice instead of a Google search.

3. Your employees are not as healthy as you think

We’ve assessed employees’ true health needs using proprietary surveys. The data is eye-opening for employers who had no idea that fatigue, headaches, hormonal problems and digestive issues plagued their population of “young healthy workers,” or that stress levels had hit a breaking point. Companies can’t ask these questions of employees directly because of privacy concerns.

4. A food program isn’t a nutrition program

Companies mean well by having food available 24/7 in the office. At our WeWork in New York City, there is an “honesty market” filled mainly with processed, sugar-laden, preservative- and dye-filled, shelf-stable foods, none of which should be consumed by anyone whose goal is to be healthy on any kind of regular basis.

I also visited one of the world’s top VC firms on Sand Hill Road last year, where lunch was served daily. I was invited to partake in a meal of pasta with cheese sauce, french fries, and salad made of iceberg lettuce and grilled chicken of unknown sourcing. While serving workers lunch is a nice gesture, there are two huge issues here.

One, the options contained refined carbs, gluten and dairy, foods that for many people are drivers of inflammation hormone imbalances and digestive disfunction.

Two, serving free food keeps workers from leaving the office. In a world where we the majority of us are sedentary and Vitamin D deficient, encouraging people to get up from their desks, go out in the sun for a few minutes, and procure lunch would be a great thing.

5. You are incentivizing use of healthcare, not self-directed wellness.

I recently spoke to a 34-year-old woman whose husband worked for a very prominent tech company. She was undergoing IVF for the second time on the company’s dime, “because it was free.” She “tried” to get pregnant for 6 months in a time of extreme stress in her life, but then chose the IVF route because the barrier to entry was so low. She also had a thyroid condition which is a known — and correctable — cause of impaired fertility. IVF is a $20,000 procedure that is stressful, has side effects and is only 20 to 30 percent effective.

I see women daily who have been shuttled into IVF without anyone looking more deeply to understand why this woman has “tried” and “can’t” get pregnant. OBGYNs are paid to do procedures and quick visits, not to sit down for an hour with a woman to understand how stress, diet, nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, and chronic conditions might be affecting her ability to get pregnant.

So far at Parsley, we have helped 20 percent of our members with diagnosed infertility or impaired fertility get pregnant naturally. While IVF is a powerful tool for some people, paying for it out of the gate is a disservice to women and a mis-incentive by companies. Instead empowering women to get well before they try to get pregnant would be a better use of time and money.

6. Employees have no buy-in.

We know that having skin in the game incentivizes behavior change: Paying for something automatically catapults you into the “preparation” phase of the trans-theoretical model of behavior change — past contemplation and toward action. So, unless an employee opts into a wellness program or pays for a service themselves, they have little internal incentive to continue to participate.

Having a gym membership handed to you doesn’t mean you actually go to the gym, for example. And yet corporate wellness programs are offered as lists of benefits and perks that look great on a website but that go underused.

A better idea is to insist that the employee pay at minimum $25 for a service monthly and voluntarily opt in. This ensures that the company’s contribution to an annual membership isn’t wasted on people who don’t want it or won’t use it.

The bottom line

So, what is the solution? In my view, it’s not a one-day seminar that pays lip service to lofty but impractical ideas about wellness. It’s not putting a medical clinic in every office building. It’s not a free gym membership — at least not for most employees.

Instead, corporate wellness programs should start by analyzing what employees really need to be healthier. Next companies need to offer tailored solutions to employee needs, ideally solutions that involve a combination of medical care, nutrition, coaching and perks that make behavior change easier.

Change is a process, not an event.

Image credit: Pixabay

Dr. Robin Berzin is the founder and CEO of Parsley Health, the groundbreaking new medical practice taking a comprehensive approach to revolutionizing healthcare.

Corporate Responsibility

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