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Why Corporate Employee Wellness Programmes Fail

Why Corporate Employee Wellness Programmes Fail

I attended a RoundGlass Forum on employee workplace wellness on 17 Dec 2016. I was invited by Dr. Marcus Ranney, and I was very impressed that he had managed to get so many people to spend Friday afternoon in the RoundGlass office, discussing this topic. This was a diverse bunch and included heads of HR departments of large corporates who had run successful employee wellness programs; insurance companies; insurance brokers, as well as startups who operate in the wellness space.

While everyone agreed that there is a big need for investing in employee wellness programmes, my big concern is that if we end up overselling the benefits of these programs, this could backfire. The claims being made today are that investing in wellness programs will help to improve employee productivity, which is why it makes business sense to deploy these. However, when the hard-nosed CFO asks them to demonstrate an ROI, this can be very hard to do.

A lot of these programmes are still cast in the traditional “pry, poke, prod and punish” mould as ccolourfullynamed by Al Lewis and Vik Khanna.

They are not employee-friendly and are often implemented because HR needs to show that they are keeping up with current global trends. Often, the Head Office of a MNC is implementing an employee wellness initiative in New York and they want the Indian subsidiary to do the same in Bengaluru.

However, India is not the US and we can’t blindly copy and paste these models. Worse, though these programs have become a billion dollar industry in the US, a well-guarded secret is that they have failed miserably there.

There are many reasons for the failure, but management refuses to recognise these. After all, isn’t it obvious that “employee wellness” is the right thing to do? Why do we need data to invest in it? How could it fail to work?

Employees Don’t Trust Management

The elephant in the room is that employees don’t trust management. They don’t want HR to meddle in their health. Wellbeing is a very personal construct, which individuals need to take the responsibility for.

Most employees don’t think it’s the management’s job to baby-sit them or to play ‘Doctor.’ They feel they are mature adults who are quite capable of looking after their own health – they just want the company to pay them their salary on time and leave their health issues alone.

Many companies also agree that keeping employees well is not their core competence. Their job is to make a profit for their stakeholders, and they can’t afford to get distracted by doing things which might be fun for the employees, but eat into their time, and don’t contribute to the bottomline.

It’s all very well to talk about reducing chronic illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes by modifying behaviour, but the reality is that human behaviour is extremely hard to change. Extrinsic motivation usually does not work – the desire to change has to come from within, otherwise, the whole exercise will be purely cosmetic.

HR loves doing wellness programmes such as meditation, yoga, and zumba classes; because they are cool. They want them provided as pilots, free of cost; so that they don’t have to ask the CFO to sanction the expenses. They don’t have a budget to pay for them, and most vendors are happy to offer them as freebies, because they use them as a way of acquiring customers for their services.

Most employees are enthusiastic about these touchy-feely programmes, because they claim it makes them more energetic; and they are happy that these programmes give them a respite from having to sit at their desks all day long. Breaks from work are always welcome – especially when you don’t have to pay for them! But does this really contribute to the bottom line?

Why Corporates Should Choose Personal Wellness Programmes They Enjoy Themselves

I think most employees would rather choose what personal wellness program they wish to follow for themselves. They are quite happy if the employer agrees to sponsor these, but these are best done outside office hours, so that employee productivity is not impaired.

If these wellness programmes are serious about documenting that they do a provide a tangible ROI, then they need to do an A/B split experiment. They should implement the programme in one city, and compare it with employee performance in another city after a few weeks, to see if it makes a difference. I have a feeling that the change will not be dramatic. Most of these programmes use vanity metrics to track their success, and are based on anecdotal case studies, rather than real evidence. The

I have a feeling that the change will not be dramatic. Most of these programmes use vanity metrics to track their success, and are based on anecdotal case studies, rather than real evidence. The employees who participate usually self-select themselves – and these are usually the active healthy ones – so they don’t really need these programs in the first place!

Why It Doesn’t Work

The wellness programmes are unlikely to affect the vast majority, who will go back to their slothful unhealthy habits. Wellbeing is a cultural construct, and if the CEO practices it, the rest of his employees will imitate him/her. Thus, if he/she shuns the elevator and climbs the stairs to his/her office daily, many of his/her juniors will be inspired to emulate him/her.

However, if it’s a programme that HR introduces, then it will become one of the many initiatives which most employees will happily ignore. Unless employees have skin in the game (for example, by paying for the classes), they will drop out. Most are not likely to participate long enough for it to have a demonstrable impact; because these are not quick-fix solutions.

We also need to acknowledge that none of these wellness programmes are going to improve the medical claims ratios. One of the potential benefits the vendors of these initiatives tout is that it will reduce health insurance payments, because preventive healthcare reduces the risk of employees falling ill, and this will cut down on medical bills.

This argument is full of holes in India, where over 70% of medical claims costs are because of parental illnesses, and not because of employee falling sick. Most employees are hale and hearty because they’re usually young. What these companies really require is disease management for elder care, rather than wellness programmes – this is far more likely to have a tangible ROI!

Finally, because there’s so much attrition and employee turnover, even if the company invests in a wellness programme, it’s unlikely to reap the benefits, because the employee will most probably leave in 2-3 years. Ironically, it’s blue collar workers who will benefit most from employee wellness programmes (for example, by providing factory workers a with a nutritious well-balanced hot meal at lunch). But they remain neglected, because this is not seen as being cool and sexy.

In Conclusion

Even though there’s little evidence regarding their efficacy, these employee wellness programs have become very fashionable. Modern HR departments have separate compensation and benefits cells, and wellness is considered to be one of the perks which the company gives its employees. The hypothesis is very seductive – well employees will be active and more engaged, and healthier employees will contribute more to the bottom line.

This is very logical, but has not stood the test of time, as documented by the studies which Al Lewis has done (read his book, ‘Surviving Workplace Wellness with Your Dignity, Finances and Major Organs Intact’). We need to learn from these failures, otherwise we will end up making exactly the same mistakes US companies have made.

Yes, there are lots of opportunities; because India is a very different market. But this is still a problem no one has cracked successfully so far, and we don’t want service providers making tall claims that they will not be able to fulfill; because this will give the entire industry a bad reputation.

[The author of this post is Dr. Aniruddha Malpani first appeared with LinkedIn and has been reproduced with permission.]


Aniruddha is Director at Solidarity Investment Advisors
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