Red Flags in Workplace Wellness Research: How to Spot Them and What They Mean

The health promotion and workplace wellness industries are not shy about promoting the efficacy of their initiatives. Unfortunately, conflicting research can make it difficult to know what to believe and who to trust. Additionally, many health promotion and wellness professionals (and most people generally) do not have sufficient training and experience in statistical analysis or research methodology to be able to decipher for themselves what conclusions can genuinely be drawn from the scientific research.

This paper will offer insight for thinking critically about claims made by study authors or others who promote research in these industries, through the lens of seven common “red flags.” These red flags are examples of flaws in research methodology or inaccuracies in the resulting claims that it is important for literature readers to understand. Health promotion and workplace wellness professionals can use this paper as a guide for objectively evaluating the literature and its associated claims.

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There is a revolution already in progress in the business world – one where enlightened leaders recognize what it means to thrive in today’s Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world, and create the conditions for success. As the authors of the book Firms of Endearment say, cutting-edge organizations

Are fueled by passion and purpose, not cash. They earn large profits by helping all their stakeholders thrive: customers, investors, employees, partners, communities and society.

The implications for all professionals who want to positively impact change and the entire employee experience are vast. Whether your focus is human resources, learning & development, leadership or employee wellbeing, tremendous opportunities exist to better align with this revolution. In this webinar, Dr. Rosie Ward and Dr. Jon Robison review the science on this changing business landscape. Incorporating story, professional experience and research, they provide a practical, science-based framework for understanding and addressing the needs of organizations and employees in this VUCA world.

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 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.

You Can’t Use a Paperclip to Solve Wellbeing Issues

In the show MacGyver, the lead character was known for creatively using objects and resources to help escape life-threatening situations. In one episode, he diffused a bomb at the last second using a paperclip. Real life is not so simple — especially when it comes to changing human behavior. Yet the way we typically approach change is just about as ridiculous as MacGyver trying to use a paperclip to improve wellbeing; we are looking to the wrong type of solutions to solve very complex issues.

Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges

There are two main types of challenges that organizations and individuals face: technical and adaptive. Each requires a different approach.

  • Technical challenges are those challenges where existing knowledge can be applied to bridge the gap between the current reality and where you aspire to be. With technical challenges, people can draw on existing knowledge and experience to solve the problems.1 For example, perhaps your organization is preparing to move locations or install a new computer system. If you’ve gone through similar changes before, you can look back at the processes and steps taken, what did and didn’t work, what vendors you used, etc., and then start the fairly predictable change process. Or let’s say you need to replace an appliance in your home. If you’ve done this before, you can take the same steps to research brands and stores and figure out what will work the best to meet your needs and budget.
  • Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are more complex. With these types of challenges, the gap between the current state and the state you aspire to be cannot be closed using existing approaches; it can only be closed by people reframing how they think and operate. Adaptive work is hard because it challenges our deeply held beliefs, and the values that made us successful in the past may become less relevant. 1 Adaptive work involves experiencing loss in letting go of certain elements of the past — loss of a way of doing things, loss of loyalty to the way things have always been done, loss of feelings of competence, loss of authority and reporting relationships, and more.2

The reality is that, when it comes to individual and organizational change, the majority of challenges we face requires adaptive work. However, in our quick-fix society, we keep trying to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges; it’s the wrong approach — like using an auto mechanic when you need an electrician. Here are just a few examples of our stuckness in looking to technical solutions to solve adaptive challenges:

  • We reduce weight loss down to the technical aspects of calories in vs. calories out (with epic failure rates and long-term unintended consequences) rather than addressing the complexities of thinking, how people view and value themselves, their relationship with food and movement, stress and more (which are all adaptive challenges). Most people know what they need to do to lose weight. The weight itself isn’t the issue; it’s much more complex than that — which is why 95% of people fail to sustain weight loss after programs end.
  • Organizations try to approach culture change as a program or event (which leads to following fairly cookie-cutter steps that should work if the organization were made up of mindless machines rather than thinking human beings). Yet, as noted in the book, Firms of Endearment, “in the twenty-first century, we can no longer view business organizations as merely ‘rational machines.’ Rather, they must be viewed as ‘dynamic and increasingly unpredictable organisms.’” In other words, transformation demands innovative and flexible thinking to guide the ever-changing journey; it demands an adaptive solution.
  • Many organizations try to approach leadership development in a mechanistic way. They look at the pieces and parts of what competencies and skills make up a good leader and aim to “fix” weak areas rather than viewing leaders as whole and part of the living system. However, developing quality leaders requires more than building skills; it demands supporting leaders to increase their self-awareness, elicit better thinking and develop quality relationships — all of which are adaptive challenges.

It is no wonder that most attempts for individual change fail and most employee wellness programs don’t work in improving individual wellbeing. People are not machines but are complex, thinking beings. Effectively leading and supporting individual and organizational change is not about forcing it on people; instead it requires deliberately creating the conditions for pausing and new thinking, thus creating a foundation for adaptive change work. This means shifting from providing solutions for people to having the locus of responsibility lie within those individuals and with the collective intelligence of employees at all levels.2

If organizations want to have engaged and intrinsically motivated employees who can succeed with adaptive challenges, they need to create the conditions for:

  • Autonomy (people being able to think for themselves)
  • Mastery (people having opportunities to learn and grow and become highly skilled)
  • Purpose (people feeling their work is meaningful and connected to a greater purpose and vision) 3

The more employees are given the space to be the authors of their own individual wellbeing journey and can be a part of leading organizational change within the context of their relationships with their colleagues, the greater the likelihood that change will be successful. Firms of Endearment and Deliberately Developmental Organizations are great examples of creating such conditions.

Zappos is another great example. Employees are encouraged never to accept or be comfortable with the status quo because being unable to respond quickly and adapt to change can be devastating. So Zappos employees are encouraged, supported, and recognized for bringing forward new ideas (autonomy). These individuals are provided constant opportunities for growth and development (mastery); and the leaders ensure all employees have great clarity on the culture and vision, and how they fit into the picture (purpose). 4

It’s time to put down the paperclip (unless you have a stack of papers you need to fasten) and stop using mismatched solutions to solve the complex challenges of the human experience.



  1. Heifetz, R.A. & Laurie, D.L. (December 2001). The Work of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 131-141
  1. Van Velsor, E. (March/April 2003). Learning New Ways: A Conversation with Ronald A. Heifetz. LIA, Volume 23(1), 19-22.
  1. Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books
  1. Hsieh, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion and Purpose. New York: Business Plus

How to Become a Place Where Millennials Want To Work

In just five years, Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1995 and currently under 33 years of age) will make up 40% of the workforce in America; in 10 years, they will comprise 75% of the workforce. If your organization wants to remain competitive, you must address the unique needs of this growing group. The best place to start is to build a foundation for a thriving workplace culture and to foster individual autonomy.

What Millennials Want

According to 2014 research from the Intelligence Group, a division of the Creative Artists Agency that focuses on analysis of youth-focused consumer preferences and trend forecasting, Millennials are looking for employers who:

  • Offer meaningful work. (64% say it’s a priority for them to make the world a better place.)
  • Foster collaboration, not competition. (88% prefer a collaborative work-culture rather than a competitive one.)
  • Provide employee autonomy. (72% would like to be their own boss. But if they do have to work for someone else, 79% prefer that boss to be more like a coach or mentor.)
  • Provide flexibility and support work-life integration. (Since work and life now blend together inextricably, 74% want flexible work schedules, and 88% want work-life integration.)

What Your Organization Can Do

Many workplaces offer options like wellness programs, flex-time, and maternity or paternity leave. While these may offer some benefits for employees, such programs and policies do not necessarily foster meaningful personal growth and development. They are elements of workplace climate, not workplace culture. (Confused about the difference between climate and culture? Read this.)

In order to appeal to Millennials and support their need for personal growth and development, it is essential to focus on cultivating a thriving workplace culture. Here’s how to get started:

1. Clarify and align core values. Millennials want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and they are looking for employers who offer them meaningful work. If your organization hasn’t already, clarify your company’s core values, the two or three behavioral traits that lie at the heart of your organization’s identity. (These are not to be confused with what Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Advantage, calls permission-to-playvalues like “honesty” or “integrity,” which are not what sets your organization apart and uniquely defines you.) One of the best ways to identify your core values is to look at the traits that are inherent and natural for your organization, and have been for a long time; what are the qualities of the employees who already embody what is best about the organization?

For example, Patagonia’s core values are central to everything they do. Here is how they describe their values:

Our values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted… For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet.

Zappos is also well known for their core values, and intentionally living them and ensuring all business practices are guided by them. Some of their core values include:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Build a positive team and family spirit

As you can see by these examples, your core values reflect your organization’s culture and your employment brand by framing the entire employee experience. Once you’ve clarified your core values, involve employees in living them on a daily basis.

How your organization can support this:

  • Offer a Culture and Visioning Workshop. People support what they help create, so provide employees the opportunity to describe in detail what the employee experience looks like when everyone is living the core values. What behaviors will they see that are consistent with core values? What behaviors might sabotage the core values? Let employees see how they align with core values and vision as individuals, and how their work contributes to living the values and vision. With this foundation, employees can begin creating their development path, which will support meaningful work.
  • Offer a quarterly Workplace Culture Workshop. Once employees have collectively created clarity around the behaviors that reflect the company culture, they will be able to create structure to nurture and protect your organization’s brand. Part of this structure includes supporting and holding each other accountable, so offer employees the opportunity to do so in these workshops. Have employees connect with peers and managers to reflect on how they see themselves and others behaving in a way that is or is not consistent with the core values and workplace culture. Not only will this address Millennials’ need for collaboration and meaningful work, but it will also bring to light any glaring problems or issues before too much damage has been done.
  • Use your core values as a litmus test for everything you do – from hiring to recognition and even firing. Because leaders profoundly shape employees’ experience of the culture, every leader and manager within your organization needs to live the core values and create the conditions where employees feel valued; otherwise, all bets are off in terms of having a high performing organization and retaining Millennials. Assuming you have leaders who walk the talk, base employee recognition on how people are living out the core values and contributing to a thriving workplace culture.

2. Provide physical and mental space where employees have an opportunity to “pause.” In his best-selling book, “Leadership from the Inside Out,” Kevin Cashman describes how too often people allow themselves to be overcome by busyness. We are unhealthily attached to our smartphones, and too caught up and distracted to take the necessary time to sift through life’s complexity and find purpose. Many Millennial employees are unconvinced that excessive work demands are worth the sacrifices to their personal life. In fact, Millennials know what the research shows: to be productive and engaged, employees need to find ways to recharge during the day. Organizations that actively seek ways to help people integrate their personal and professional lives will have energized employees who are better able to bring their best selves to work each day.

How your organization can support this:

  • Deliberately schedule play into the work week. Organizations whose employees engage in high-level thinking (e.g., Google, 3M) deliberately schedule play into the workday; they recognize that adopting a childlike mindset opens people up to alternative ways of thinking. Although play can include physical activities (e.g., setting up a Ping-Pong table in the break room), it is really more of a mindset; the key is that employees need to feel safe about pursuing occasional tangential interests.
  • Create an environment that positions people to do their best work. Some people need quiet space to allow for focus and concentration, while others benefit from collaboration. Create spaces that allow people to work well, but also to play and relax. Consider repurposing a meeting room into relaxation space for reflection, meditation or short naps.
  • Support breaks and vacations. In his book, “The Best Place to Work,” Ron Friedman asserts that people have a biological need for rest that’s as strong as our need for food and water. Yet personal time – including vacations – has become infected with work through smartphone technology that compels many to check company email frequently. FullContact, a progressive software company in Denver, recognizes the importance of rest. In 2012, they implemented a program that pays each employee $7,500 to take their family on vacation each year. However, in order to receive the bonus, employees must first agree to 3 strict provisions, as outlined on the blog of their CEO, Bart Lorang:
    1. You have to go on vacation, or you don’t get the money.
    2. You must disconnect.
    3. You can’t work while on vacation.

Lorang explains how this seemingly expensive program benefits the entire organization: “It’s an investment into the long-term happiness of our employees, which in turn leads to the sustained growth of the company.”

Other simple things you can do to support the human need for rest include leaving time between meetings, encouraging employees to take a quick walk, and providing time for socialization.

3. Generously support professional AND personal development. Millennials are looking for organizations that truly value them, not just as cogs in the company machine, but as people who are thinking, evolving, and complex-systems capable. Show your Millennials (and all of your employees!) that you value everything they bring to the table by helping them take advantage of developmental opportunities that will broaden their horizons. Whether they choose courses or conferences to enhance their professional skills, or can benefit from programs or a professional coach to help them grow personally (a cornerstone of highly effective organizations), employees who are supported to grow and are much more likely to be engaged at work.

Strengthening Culture is a Win-Win

When addressing Millennials’ unique needs, beware of simply creating more programs and policies. It’s essential to shift and strengthen the underlying workplace culture in order to support employee autonomy, personal growth and development, and attract Millennials to your organization.

The good news is that by addressing Millennials’ needs, you will foster a healthier and more productive workplace for all of your employees — and improve organizational performance.

For more on building a thriving workplace culture and improving employee morale, check out this article.

Do you have a healthy workplace culture? Find out now with this quick quiz.

“Engagement” in Wellness Programs: Separating Fact from Fiction

We receive e-mails almost weekly from various wellness vendors, professional organizations, and publications with articles, webinars, and programs offering solutions for increasing participation and building “engagement” into wellness programs. However, in every case it is evident there is a fundamental confusion on what engagement really is and why it matters. Let’s look at how Miriam-Webster defines these two terms:

  • Engagement:  an emotional involvement or commitment
  • Participate:  to take part in an activity or event

In healthcare, there has recently been an increased focus on patient engagement and the patient experience — recognizing how important both are to the quality of patient care and health outcomes. If you ask most healthcare providers, they say they would much rather have patients engaged in their own health and treatment plans versus just showing up expecting the healthcare team to “magically” do all of the work (i.e., participating).

In education, there is also an increased focus on engagement and how that translates into the student experience. In an article discussing the importance of engagement versus participation on college campuses, the authors argue that “Rather than promoting engagement primarily through programs and publications, campuses could inspire students by transforming their entire experience.” Again, if you ask most teachers, they say they would much rather have students engaged in their own learning versus just showing up to take part in class and do the minimum to get by (i.e., participating).

And organizational leaders who understand the value and importance of employee engagement and the employee experience focus on creating the conditions for highly engaged employees. There are more than 50 identified conceptual definitions of “employee engagement.” The Conference Board (a global, independent business membership and research association working since 1916 to provide organizations with the practical knowledge they need to improve their performance and better serve society) assembled a committee of experts in 2007 that came up with this composite definition:

“Employee engagement is a heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for his/her job, organization, manager, or coworkers that, in turn, influences him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.”1

Engagement is said to occur when employees:

  • Know what’s expected of them
  • Feel valued
  • Are able to leverage their strengths
  • Have quality relationships at work
  • Are cognitively stimulated 2

Engaged employees are not only satisfied, but they go above and beyond to help the organization achieve success. Disengaged employees, on the other hand, are apathetic, toxic to the work environment, and can erode the culture and negatively impact productivity. Herein lies the issue…

In the world of worksite wellness/health promotion, the term “engagement” is often used synonymously and interchangeably with “participation.” Clearly however, participation and engagement are NOT the same, not even close. When people refer to “wellness engagement rates,” they are really referring to program participation or completion. Employees can participate in (and even complete) a program without being engaged. In fact, the more incentives are used and the more hoops employees have to jump through to earn the incentive, the more their participation becomes compliance-focused and engagement drops. Likewise, employees can be very much engaged in their job and engaged in their own personal wellbeing yet not participate in programs or activities.

So why should those involved with employee wellbeing care about semantics? Because employee engagement is powerfully connected to individual wellbeing:

  • Highly engaged employees miss fewer days of work due to illness and are more resilient with respect to organizational change.3
  • Total cholesterol and triglyceride levels significantly decrease as engagement levels increase; likewise, cholesterol and triglyceride levels increase as engagement levels decrease.4
  • 62% of engaged employees feel their work lives positively affect their physical health and 78% believe their work lives benefit them psychologically.5
  • 54% of actively disengaged employees feel their work lives negatively affected their physical health and 51% feel their work lives negatively affect their psychological wellbeing.5
  • Actively disengaged employees are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety as are engaged employees.6
  • Individuals in workgroups in the bottom quartile of engagement average 62% more accidents than workgroups in the top quartile of engagement.7

And according to the latest research, some 70% of U.S. employees are not engaged; costing businesses in this country 100s of billions of dollars every year. That’s of much greater significance than the unfounded ROI and healthcare cost-savings claims from many wellness programs.

Confusing participation with engagement is problematic, particularly so for employee wellbeing since the typical 4P (pry, prod, poke, and punish) “wellness or else” program is more likely to diminish engagement than it is to improve it.

So the next time you hear a vendor, consultant, or program provider referring to their “engagement rates,” beware. Ask how these individuals measure engagement and how they distinguish it from participation. Our guess is they will have difficulty providing an answer but rather will start describing all of the programs employees can complete (which they then define as being engaged in the program).

Bottom Line:

If you want to create the conditions for thriving organizational and employee wellbeing, focus on supporting engagement, not coercing participation in wellness programs.

Watch this great video by my colleague, Dr. Jon Robison, on “Words & the Art of Treating Employees like Adults.”


  1. Marciano, P.L., Ph.D., “Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work:  Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT™.”
  2. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., & Keys, C.L.M., Well-being in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes: A review of the Gallup studies. In C.L.M. Keys & H. Haidt (Eds.), “Flourishing:  the positive person and the good life” (pp. 205-224). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  3. Watson Wyatt, “Driving business results through continuous engagement.
  4. Harter, J.K., Canedy, J. & Stone, A., “A longitudinal study of engagement at work and physciologic indicators of health.” Presented at the 2008 Work, Stress, and Health Conference, Washington, D.C.
  5. Crabtree, S., “Engagement keeps the doctor away.” Gallup Management Journal Online, 1-5.
  6. Agrawal, S. & Harter, J. K.,”Engagement at work predicts change in depression and anxiety status in the next year.” Omaha, NE: Gallup.
  7. Senge, P.M.,The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.”