There’s only one thing office employees really need for “wellness”

Too much of a stretch.
Too much of a stretch.
Image: Reuters/Henry Romero
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Two business professors in Paris have proposed a radical theory for improving wellness at work.

They ask: Rather than pour more money into a $50 billion dollar, still-unproven corporate wellness industry concerned with what people do in their off-hours to counteract the effects of their jobs, why not look at the pressures that make those wellness programs so attractive—or necessary—in the first place?

Instead of inviting employees to find calm at a sanctioned yoga class, or an expensive retreat, why not ease the work-related burdens that are leading to burnout, anxiety, and disease?

“Are we really doing ourselves a favour pursuing mindfulness training in the evening while continuing to endure constant daily stress at work?” Manfred Kets de Vries, a professor of leadership and organizational change at INSEAD, and Katharina Balazs, an associate professor of management at ESCP Europe, ask in a new op-ed for INSEAD’s Knowledge blog. “When we spend money on ‘detoxifying’ treatments, crystal readings and expensive retreats, is it possible that we are being taken for a gigantic ride?”

True wellness, they argue, is a state of mind that ought to be baked into company culture, and into our notions of work. Their experience consulting with major corporations has taught them that wellness follows naturally when when communication flows easily, when flexible work arrangements are real and normalized, and when people feel supported by their managers and peers.

To them, improving a company’s health begins with creating a culture of trust, which “implies that people treat each other with mutual respect, behave with integrity and that fair process is a given,” they write, adding, “Unfortunately, too many organisations are permeated by fear and paranoia. When this happens, creativity disappears by the wayside—and so does wellness.”

As the authors point out, major corporations, including Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Intuit or SAP—have embraced comprehensive wellness programs for staff, and Apple will soon open its own AC Wellness health clinics to give employees on-site medical care and access to other wellness-supporting treatments. But, like other critics of these trends, they question the motivation, inferring that the real goal may be to keep people working at more than full capacity while preventing complete burnout.

Their point is not that every wellness perk is wasteful, but that these kinds of programs will do little to counter the negative effects of a fundamentally toxic work culture.

In the same way that career advice for women is actually a form of gaslighting (because really it’s the workplace injustices, not women’s behaviors, that ought to change), wellness programs arguably speak to the wrong side of the problem. What if, when it comes to wellness, the only thing workers need from their employers is a work culture that allows them to lead balanced, healthy lives in the first place?