Which Is Better: Wellness Program or Happy Employees?

I’m on record as something of a minimalist. I don’t particularly like large technological apparatuses overtaking more of our lives – even though I admit my iPad usage needs to come down. I don’t like a lot of unnecessary oversight (cough NSA cough). I don’t even like owning too many things.

So, it should come as little surprise to you that I’ve become disenchanted with most wellness program vendors.

Part of the reason is program bloat. Way too many things going on leads to more money being spent, which counteracts any health benefits the employee population might be seeing. Indeed, that’s the exact premise of this article over at IndustryWeek.

The second myth is that keeping employees out of the hospital using a wellness program is the best way to reduce health spending. The [authors] state that this is not “one shred of evidence that a corporate wellness program can reduce the cost of your health benefits, let alone by more than the cost of the program.”

Furthermore they believe that companies “are likely throwing away large incentives and expensive programs at people who either aren’t going to change in any meaningful way or would change even without incentives.”

Instead, what (Al) Lewis and (Tom) Emerick – the authors of Cracking Health Costs – suggest is the creation of a workplace that “employees find less stressful and more satisfying.”

In other words, you want to develop a corporate culture that isn’t a leech on your employees’ lives, health, and happiness.

I know, it’s not a new idea. Thousands of speakers and managers and CEOs sing the praises of a collaborative, happy, low-stress workplace – and with good reason.

Somehow, though, millions of other managers, CEOs, and employees completely miss the boat. Either they don’t get it, they don’t want to get it… or they pay for a top-notch wellness program to mask the problems brought on by a poisonous company culture. Worthy of a Captain Picard facepalm, if you ask me.



It’s a perfect example of missing the forest for the trees. Here are just some of the most common trees:

  • A lot of employees are overweight
  • Average work day is over eight hours
  • Micromanaging middle managers who like petty power trips
  • Detached senior executives who care more about their performance bonuses than their employees
  • Ineffective work flows and processes that back things up for hours/days and skyrocket stress levels
  • Disapproving of taking breaks during the day (caveat: I don’t endorse compulsive break-takers who don’t get anything done)

You get the idea. Here’s the best part about seeing these trees as the forest they really are:

You see the connections.

You can see how clunky work flows and way too many meetings can obliterate productivity.

You start noticing how all that micromanaging and discord skyrockets stress levels, and how the vending machines in the break room contribute to weight gain by increasing stress-induced eating.

You start to see that glowering at or reprimanding people who stand up to take a break and walk around for a while exacerbates problems associated with sitting all day, productivity, energy, stress (since physical activity is a phenomenal stress outlet), and dislike of coworkers/managers.

You begin to see the benefits of having management that isn’t made up of a bunch of piss-ants.

You even start to realize that by seeing all of this, you can help teach others within the organization to see them as well, and work to correct them.

And then you start to implement changes that turn an unhealthy, unhappy, and (sometimes) hostile workplace into almost the exact opposite – starting with employee satisfaction and productivity first.

Don’t be afraid to step on some hands and feet – especially those of the piss-ants who see the writing on the wall that their tyrannies are ending.

Take care of that and health will follow… most of the time. That’s when initiatives like activity groups, getting rid of junk food vending machines in favor of supplying fruits and veggies (and other actual food), and the occasional group/individual challenge can make a big impact.

And it doesn’t even take a battalion of HRAs, blood tests, and cholesterol screenings.

What do you think?

This entry was posted in Company Culture, Corporate Wellness and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Which Is Better: Wellness Program or Happy Employees?

  1. jackwbruce says:

    James, thanks for writing a thought-provoking posts. What do I think? You have touched on two of my favorite subjects: Wellness and Employee Appreciation/Engagement. I share the same interest in the need for stress-free work environments, though that is not always possible or reasonable. I particularly appreciate the list of “trees” that contribute to stress in the workplace—which, in turn, results in higher health costs. I wrestle with the connection, however, of having to choose between the two. A complete wellness program will extend beyond the physical to the emotional and spiritual—they are holistic and certainly include attention to stress in and outside the job.

    There are a lot of naysayers when it comes to Wellness and effectiveness and costs savings. Yet, we have to ask the question of what is the cost of not having a wellness program, (medical bills, absenteeism, and presenteeism)? Furthermore, the effectiveness of wellness programs resides primarily in the ability to execute. Two excellent books that give credence to the validity of wellness in terms of costs savings are “Zero Trends” and “The Company that Solved Healthcare.”

    Thanks again for a stimulating post. -Jack

    • James Denney says:


      Good points all. We agree that a stress-free workplace is a pipe dream – stress will ALWAYS exist in the form of things like project deadlines or the intrinsic nature of the work environment. (Oil drilling? Stressful. Dealing with unruly customers at a drive-through? Stressful.) Getting rid of the unnecessary causes of stress is entirely doable.

      I don’t think we have to, nor should we, choose between wellness programs and happy employees. They can coexist quite well. I just think we should prioritize employee happiness/satisfaction, which necessarily entails lowering stress, raising morale, etc. A wellness program that addresses physical, mental, and spiritual health fits into that vision.

      If I had to describe it visually, I’d say that employee happiness/satisfaction is like the outermost – and biggest – of a set of Russian nesting dolls. It’s what you see first. It houses all the other smaller, yet similar, elements of a strong workplace. A full-strength well-being program that addresses each facet of health is one of the inner dolls, along with things like appropriate pay and benefits and a supportive company culture.

      A company can choose the “order” of these inner “nested dolls” to suit them, but miss even one of them and the set is 1) incomplete and 2) rattles a lot.

      As for executing wellness programs… well, we definitely agree there. It can’t be done halfheartedly, with half-baked programming, feeble evaluation, no accountability, and handled just by one person/department. It takes the effort of the entire organization, and I’ve written about that necessity several times here.

      Thanks for the reply!

  2. Pingback: Take Care of You! | Jacqui Senn

  3. Pingback: Shape Up Your Wellness Today With 7 Easy-to-Implement Tips | Enlightened Lotus Wellness

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s