"Superfitness" and other corporate-wellness-critics' overstatements

Academics Andre Spicer and Carl Cederstrom have made a splash with their book “The Wellness Syndrome,” which posits that corporate wellness programs not only aren’t good, they’re bad for health and morale.

According to the Harvard Business Review, they performed cultural and historical analysis to conclude that wellness programs “produce modest results at best,” quoting Spicer. Modest results aren’t nothing, but so what, that’s not their worst finding, anyway. From the interview:

Q: So is it fair to say wellness programs are not just ineffective, they’re counterproductive?  
A: In some cases, yes! With particularly intense wellness initiatives, we found, employees plowed a great deal of energy into trying to improve their health. Sometimes this meant that employees had less time to focus on their core tasks. More frequently, these wellness initiatives would eat into employees’ personal lives. People would have time for working and exercising but little time for anything else.

There are a couple things to unpack: First, he’s already backing away, from the broad statement that wellness programs backfire to “in some cases,” when the wellness initiative is “particularly intense.” That suggests his objection is to methods, not with wellness programs themselves. Which wouldn't draw nearly as many headlines.

But more encompassingly, I question several assumptions. Wellness programs leave employees less time to do their job? That’s hardly credible; only the most dim-witted employers would spend money on pointless tasks that make their employees less available to work.

And then: People would have little time except for working and exercising? Not only does that obviously overstate, but it sidesteps the key point of whether there would be any benefit from exercising. Who wants to argue that regular exercise — not pursued obsessively, but as a wholesome discipline — isn’t beneficial?

I went years at a time without doing any exercise at all, only because I was loath to. But even then, I never maintained that I wouldn’t be better off if I was active.

To undercut fitness as a goal, they label it superfitness, as in, “There’s little evidence that superfitness correlates with leadership, good management, or even productivity.” Who made “superfitness” the standard before they did? Is that what corporate wellness requires, or is pursuing? Spicer tells HBR that these superfit people judge those who don’t meet their standard, but also “often become obsessed with wellness because they fear slipping into the other class. They see their fitness as an indicator of professional success.”

So, once you bring fitness into it, nobody’s happy? I’m sure these two professors are wicked smart, but I don’t see how their contentions make much sense at all.

Next: Straw men

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