"I don't see no problem here," or "Let them eat fruit"?

In the most recent post, we were enjoying author Andre Spicer’s interview with a very sympathetic editor at Harvard Business Review. Spicer is co-author of “The Wellness Syndrome,” a run-of-the-mill dog-bites-man tale that argues that corporate wellness programs not only don’t help, they harm.

I saved his last answer for this post. It is:

"It’s important for me to say that I’m not writing off wellness interventions completely. Let’s just ask, What are we trying to achieve here—what is the problem we’re solving?
"First, employers need to ask, Do we need all this? In some cases good, simple interventions—like gym facilities—may be enough. Second, employers should be realistic about what they hope to achieve from these programs. Often they’re sold as everyone in the firm will quit smoking. Unrealistic goals like that will backfire. Third, you must establish boundaries. Using technology to watch people outside work is a problem, and there’s emerging evidence that the more work bleeds into life, the less productive people become. Finally, look for small changes that can make a big difference. Too often people go all in on investments like treadmill desks when they could get the same payoff by giving their employees natural light, fresh air, and some fresh fruit."

So, he’s not unreasonable — wellness interventions aren’t all bad. (Except, didn’t he say they are?)

And: “What is the problem we’re solving?” That’s a big question, certainly, with at least several answers. Let’s start with the fact that healthcare costs have been rising at above the inflation rate since the ‘70s, and no institution experiences a greater burden from that than business.

Meanwhile, Gallup says that twice as many workers are actively hostile toward their employers as are actively engaged, and that the largest segment or workers, 63 percent, is “not engaged.” It says that one remedy is to enhance employee wellbeing (which includes, but goes beyond, wellness, which is commonly held as a physical-health matter).

So, most employees today aren’t working toward their organization’s goals, and their lifestyle choices are costing organizations more every year. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve, Mr. Spicer.

Spicer goes on to say that installing gyms at the plant “may be enough.” Why pay for treadmill desks, “when they could get the same payoff by giving their employees natural light, fresh air, and some fresh fruit”? First of all, that’s a false choice, whose use is a good sign that we’ve left the realm of science, research, and reason.

But also, you could pursue all those paths, decent as they are, and still not dent these formidable challenges that companies face. To suggest that you could throw some grapes and tangerines at the problem, or “let them breathe air,” betrays a bold lack of understanding.

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