When It Comes to Workplace Well-Being, Leaders Need to Think Like a Scientist

Overusing the label of “wellness” is a growing market trend that indicates both employees and leaders are prioritizing health—but how can leaders find out which programs are worth their time or investment? In order to sift out the chaff, leaders need to ask the right questions and take an intentional, evidence-based approach to supporting their teams’ well-being.

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You’ve likely come across the term “conscious consumerism.” It’s the idea that consumers deliberately make purchase decisions that they believe have a positive impact. They shop with sustainability in mind. Similarly, “conscious employeeism,” while not a technical term, is very much alive in today’s organizations. People are coming to work with sustainability in mind, for their mind. While thinking about the positive impact of their employment, they are centering considerations of their own well-being and the well-being of their colleagues. What is their job? How do they work? Where do they work? Why do they do what they do? And ultimately, are they happy as a result? 

Now more than ever—with COVID accelerating the process—employees are demanding that their work support, or at least not jeopardize, their wellness. With high rates of turnover from the ongoing Great Resignation, employees have more power and leverage than they’ve typically had before. It’s now on organizations and leaders to meet their people where they’re at and to incorporate wellness initiatives into the workplace. 

Easier said than done. There’s a range of offerings and varying HR mandates to choose from within the corporate wellness space, encompassing everything from meditation apps to biometric health trackers to coaching programs. So, how do leaders navigate this territory? It’s worth taking stock of where we are today and the dangers of our best efforts backfiring.

The Problems with Wellness Washing

One of the pitfalls along the road to thriving workplaces has picked up the term “wellness washing,” or “well-being washing.” Like other “washing” phenomena such as greenwashing or eco-washing, wellness washing describes how some organizations and businesses tend to make claims about supporting employees’ health and wellness, when that commitment just isn’t borne out in reality. This might look, for example, like a company introducing “energizing” smoothies at the office while ignoring how employees are working 70-hour weeks. Or inviting a keynote speaker to discuss the risks of burnout, without actually providing in-house resources for employees who are burning out. In wellness washing, the framing of “wellness” is used willy-nilly in programs, benefits, campaigns, and “experiences” in order to present a feel-good façade to customers, employees, or both, when in fact there’s not very much in any of the above that is wellness related. The “well” is dry. 

In “wellness washing,” the framing of wellness is used to present a feel-good façade to customers, employees, or both.

There are two problems with this. First, if everything is “wellness,” then nothing is wellness. Overusing or misusing the term, knowingly or not, trivializes its usage and drains the overall idea of any conceptual oomph. Many of us have likely experienced this: As another wellness initiative gets rolled out to the team, the collective eyerolls can be felt from across the Zoom call. 

Second, and following on this point, something should be tagged as promoting wellness if and only if there’s good reason to believe that it will actually improve people’s well-being and happiness—not just if it “sounds like a good thing,” is the latest buzzy trend, or has been endorsed by a celebrity.

This is worth digging into. To determine whether or not a program can support individual and collective well-being, you need to think like a scientist. If you do this, and if you act with the best intentions for your people and teams, then you can guard yourself against wellness washing.

Think Like a Scientist 

Let’s unpack some of the science at play here. Much of science is about understanding basic cause and effect: “If I do X, then the result is Y.” The laws of the universe allow us to observe and measure the variables in a system that directly effect change on one another, and this applies to understanding humans and human well-being. For example, if I subject myself to some physical torture (cause), I will experience a drop in well-being (effect). Admittedly, with humans it’s messy. After all, what feels like torture to me may be a pleasure to you. But let’s assume, for a moment, that things are simple with humans.

In corporate wellness, begin with first principles: How are you defining well-being and wellness? What does wellness look like in your people? Let’s just say you could compare a well employee to an unwell employee. How would they behave differently at work? 

You must also think about measurement. How are you measuring well-being? And what tools are you using to measure it? Are you using the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope or the James Webb telescope to capture the image of people’s well-being?

Then there’s the question of the causative agent. In simple terms, what intervention or program are you introducing people/teams to? How did you decide on it? When an employee goes through it, what is their experience? Not to mention the different elements of well-being. Does your team need help with rediscovering their purpose? Tools to stay calm under pressure? Help with interpersonal communication

Does your team need help with rediscovering their purpose? Tools to stay calm under pressure? Help with interpersonal communication?

All of this can be boiled down to the following: Does the program work, i.e., does it improve people’s well-being in a sustainable way? And finally, how do you know that it works?

If you could do a due diligence on any given corporate wellness initiative, and you had at your disposal the above list of questions as a guiding framework, you might conclude that there are three types of wellness categories in today’s organizations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (and the Future) of Wellness 

Let’s start in reverse.

The Ugly. This is the worst-case scenario. Here, leaders are doing wellness washing with full knowledge that they’re doing so. It’s being done mostly for compliance purposes rather than for genuine impact or care for the people undergoing the experience (think of the “positive affirmations” introduced to overworked and underpaid employees in Amazon warehouses). The implicit logic is, “This is something we have to do to get a score of X on some vanity metric, so that HR or various ERGs (employee resource groups) can say the org is doing its part in helping people.” 

Scientifically, the intervention or program is probably not validated. Those administering the program aren’t measuring its effects properly. And leaders are investing in (fake) wellness for the wrong reasons. Organizations could have gotten by on this a few years ago. But no longer in today’s workplace climate. The conscious employee will see right through the façade. Very likely, they will lose confidence in their leaders’ commitment to real well-being and will walk out the door to the competitor who does it right.

The Bad. This is a step up. Organizations and leaders are sincere in their intentions to support worker wellness, but they don’t have the internal capabilities or the expertise to appreciate that not all interventions will work, because they don’t have the scientific teeth behind them. There’s an entire science of behavior change and psychological insights, and consulting someone with expertise in this research offers a good starting point. But that assumes the people designing and delivering the programs and measuring their impact know about this science and have the resources at their fingertips. And that’s a big assumption. 

The Good. This is the best-case scenario, and there are plenty of sub-gradients within The Good. Leaders and teams responsible for wellness initiatives recognize that there’s a significant range in the quality of wellness programming, and that only a select few at the far end of the high-quality spectrum will effect real, sustainable change (that is, improve people’s well-being).

It is every organization’s responsibility to care for its people, and part of that care or compassion is knowing what works—and perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t. 

These businesses and groups have wellness initiatives for the right reasons, and they are selective and strategic in which ones they choose to implement. This requires having a group of scientists and psychologists right up front and center, or at least heavily involved in developing and refining the initiative. It is every organization’s responsibility to care for its people, and part of that care or compassion is knowing what works—and perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t. 

Washing Our Hands of Wellness Washing

And what about the future? Hopefully more good, less bad and certainly less ugly. We’re heading in the direction of more personalized programs, recognizing that people are different in terms of exactly what they need to help them stay balanced and healthy. Recall, what’s torture to me may be pleasure to you. Within the same company, people will respond in different ways to different interventions.

With the right technology and digital capabilities, organizations can start to use AI and predictive analytics to understand that Joe from HR will see the greatest impact from Program X delivered in Style Y; while Jane from Finance will see her greatest impact from Program Z delivered in Style W. With this amount of personalization becoming table stakes for employees and teams, it’d near impossible for leaders to do wellness washing. It means our leaders and organizations must be smarter to deliver on the promise of well-being.

Choosing a wellness program that’s scientifically validated and that will serve you and your teams effectively should involve more than a quick Google search. Leaders must also view it as an investment. During recessions, typically the first budgets to go are with L&D and HR. That increases the risk of wellness washing, because every good leader knows that happy, engaged employees is good for business. Cutting these budgets right now is the opposite of what people need. 

When it comes to committing company funds toward health and well-being, leaders and HR decision-makers need to be conscious, informed consumers. Fuelling workplace wellness isn’t a quick fix, to be sure, but it’s within reach—and, over time, the most dedicated employees are going to be the people who have the tools to take care of themselves and one another. And that’s a recipe for a thriving business.

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  • Dori Kelner
  • April 26, 2023