10 Revelations on the Present & Future of Workplace Wellbeing

Huge changes are underfoot in the workplace in recent years, and the organizational and employee wellbeing spaces are no exception. From an organizational standpoint, leaders and HR executives are increasingly realizing that while the traditional focus on leadership, culture and engagement is still important there may actually be something even more fundamental that is keeping businesses from fully thriving. As explained inDeloitte’s recent survey of more than 7,000 leaders and HR executives worldwide:

“After three years of struggling to drive employee engagement and retention, improve leadership, and build a meaningful culture, executives see a need to redesign the organization…The days of the top-down hierarchical organization are slowly coming to an end, but changing the organization chart is only a small part of the transition to a network of teams. The larger, more important part is to change how an organization actually works.”

From the employee standpoint, the wellness industry has a history of making problematic claims about the impact of their programming – as non-partisan expert and Rand senior scientist Soeren Mattke explained in a recent interview:

“The industry went in with promises of 3 to 1 and 6 to 1 based on health care savings alone – then research came out that said that’s not true – then they said ok we are cost neutral – and now as research says maybe not even cost neutral they say but is really about productivity which we can’t really measure but it’s an enormous return.”

And the obsessive focus on outdated behavior change approaches mostly relating to the physical health aspects of the employee experience has been largely ineffective and often iatrogenic. As workplace wellness guru Dr. Dee Edington commented:

“The field has been riding the behavioral change horse for 40 years                 with little to show for it.”

If we add to these realizations the movement by enlightened leaders to embrace the realities of organizations as complex living systems; like the weather, ecosystems and human beings rather than monolithic machines, the pressing need for change looms large indeed!

With this foundation, we suggest (not in any particular order) 10 revelations on organizational and employee wellbeing, each consisting of a short statement about the current state of affairs and a prediction and/or hope for the future. As always we invite you to suggest you own revelations to help us move our industry into the 21st century.

1. Organizational Design

Currently: Hierarchical, top-down, command and control pyramidal power structures are today’s dominant template for organizational design. In fact, the hierarchical, boss-subordinate relationship cannot stack any other way. The problem is that these complex, rigid structures are outdated, painfully slow to adapt monoliths in this time of unprecedented, rapidly changing business landscapes.

Future: Dramatic demographic upheavals in the working population, the huge impact of digital technology and social media, the rapid rate of change in every aspect of business and the onslaught of non-traditional work situations (contingent, contract, and part time workers make up 1/3 of the workforce) are driving an urgent need to redesign and reorganize our organizations. Some wildly successful companies have even done away with these hierarchies of power altogether.

2. “Medicalizing” The Workplace

Currently: Bio-metric screens and health risk assessments are still a mainstay of employee corporate wellness programs in spite of the fact that the literature is clear that they do not save money or make a significant impact on health behaviors and they hold a high potential for creating iatrogenic consequences.

Future: More and more employers will realize the limitations and pitfalls of these approaches and begin to consider health care consumerism as a more efficacious and cost effective path for helping employees navigate our complex health system.

3. “Culture of Health”

Currently: The corporate wellness industry typically describes a “culture of health” by referencing the existence of programs like biometric screens, health risk assessments, exercise and weight loss initiatives and stress management programs.

Future: More corporate wellness industry professionals will embrace organizational experts’ definitions of a “culture of health.”  An organization is considered to be “healthy” when it is whole, consistent and complete and when its management, operations and culture are unified. Such companies are characterized by minimal politics and confusion, high morale and productivity, and low turnover.

4. “FUSION” of Organizational and Employee Wellbeing

Currently: As we can readily see from the previous example, for the most part these two spaces have largely conducted out of separate silos. In fact, it has not been unusual for the wellness, medical, safety, and EAP providers to operate largely in isolation from each other.

Future: All parties involved will realize that the “health” of an organization and the “health” of its employees are inextricably interconnected. All aspects of the employee experience must be connected with the mission, vision and purpose of the organization. This necessitates breaking down silos and having a coordinated effort through the Fusion of organizational and employee wellbeing.

5. Motivation for Change

Currently: In spite of a complete lack of evidence of efficacy and growing evidence of iatrogenicity, most change initiatives at the workplace are still mired in 20th century behaviorist approaches. Standard procedure is for rewards to be doled out for participation and behavior change, and punishments to be levied for non participation and non compliance.

Future: Especially thanks to the work of Alfie Kohn, Daniel Pink and Edward Deci, business and health professionals alike are beginning to see the critical need for intrinsic motivation to support sustainable change. Soon we will see “creating the conditions for change” replacing “getting people to change” as the modus operandi for all change initiatives at the workplace.

6. Weight Loss

Currently: In spite of more than 3 decades of consistent, conclusive research demonstrating the failure of weight loss programs, contests and competitions to result in sustainable weight loss for any but a small minority of participants, and growing evidence of iatrogenicity, they remain some of the most common employee wellness programs.

Future: We have begun to see more questioning of the validity and safety of these interventions. Our hope is that there will soon be a total move away from weight-centered initiatives towards offering employees programs that help them to find peace with their bodies and their food.

7. Mindfulness, Stress Management, Meditation and Resilience Programs

Currently: With stress now formally recognized as a major source of pain, anxiety and health care costs at the workplace, there is a growing interest on the part of organizations in programs to help employees cope with workplace stress.

Future: Organizations will realize that without a focus on changing the actual sources of workplace stress, programs for individuals are unlikely to have a significant sustained impact. Highly respected Stanford University professor of organizational behaviorJeffrey Pfeffer, summed up the problem this way:

“Many of the individual behaviors you are focusing on in your health and wellness programs (such as) stop smoking, eat better, exercise more,  are in fact the consequences of the environments in which they (employees)are working. If you work people to death, of course they are going to smoke more, drink more and eat worse.”

8. ROI vs. VOI vs. ??

Currently: Because research does not support that employee wellness programs deliver a positive ROI, it has been suggested that VOI might be a better way to evaluate their worth. Unfortunately, at present there is little evidence to support this claim. Dr. Soeren Mattke, summed up the research on the impact of these programs in an article in the prestigious Health Affairs blog:

“Those changes are not large enough, and the relationship between health risks and spending too weak, to result in reduction of health care cost, let alone in return of investment.”

Future: Organizations will move away from both ROI and VOI and instead embrace a broader, more holistic and highly customizable approach.  By incorporating metrics that evaluate all of the elements of wellbeing, organizations will be able to see clearly whether changes are moving in the desired direction.

9. Coaching

Currently: Most coaching today is still focused on changing behaviors, withMotivational Interviewing and Stages of Change the dominant approaches. The focus on individual behaviors and extrinsic motivation are throwbacks to the 17th century desire for control and the 20th century’s Skinnerian “get people to change” behavior modification. However, since behaviors are the outward manifestations of thoughts and feelings, trying to DO differently without thinking differently is doomed to fail as most people inevitably fall back on deeply rooted habits.

Future: Organizations will embrace coaching techniques that focus on helping people to be better thinkers. Rather than the coach being in the driver’s seat asking questions in to “get” a client to change some health-related behavior, with Intrinsic Coaching the client is doing most of the work. The coach helps to create the conditions for people to be the authors of their own journey. The client walks away with something personally meaningful rather than some polite agreement for ideas guided by the coach.

10. Wellness/Wellbeing Programming

Currently: Traditional wellness initiatives have typically begun with biometric screens and health risk assessments, and then some combination of behavior change programs, the most common of which usually relate to exercise and nutrition. Some companies are also adding programs to address other areas of wellbeing; financial, social, mental, community, etc.

Future: Business leaders and health professionals will realize that without addressing the underlying culture of an organization, the likelihood of change initiatives of any kind having much of an impact is slim. In our 7 Points of Transformation for creating thriving workplace cultures, wellbeing programming does not even enter the picture until step six;  after we have worked with the organization to assess the culture, create the blueprint for change, develop quality leaders, create a supportive climate, and rethink and update strategies for promoting change.

Take Home: We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these revelations. If you find the approaches discussed here exciting please feel free to visit our website atwww.salveopartners.com for lots of free resources. Also, our next online Certificate Training is now open for registration. If being a “Paradigm Pioneer” is appealing to you, please check it out and feel free to contact us with any questions.