3 min read

Corporate wellbeing programs don’t work. What you can do instead

A look at how employers approach employee wellbeing and what you can do to advocate for yourself
Corporate wellbeing programs don’t work. What you can do instead
Photo by Javier Haro / Unsplash

Sustain issue #45 (Get Sustain in your inbox next Thursday)

We’re family at this company.

This tired trope gets thrown around in many workplaces. But workplaces are not family.

Employees can and do get laid off the second financials decline. Just ask Peloton.

Leaders pile on work even at the detriment of employee health.

Corporate wellbeing programs are a retention strategy only.

Not so much a family, eh?

What are wellbeing programs at work

There are four types of corporate wellbeing programs that exist.

Low effort / high investment 

A stipend of some sort. Many companies give employees a monthly allotment of money to spend on gym memberships and other wellness programs.

High effort / high investment 

A program where employees are asked to reach certain wellness goals like healthy eating, daily movement, and doctor visits over a certain amount of time (i.e. a month). Reaching this threshold lowers their healthcare premiums.

Low effort / low investment 

Occasional visiting yoga instructors and seminars.

High effort / low investment 

Treating the culture. Rightsizing the amount of work employees are asked to take on, ensuring employees are recognized, creating psychological safety to log off so employees have time to take care of themselves. 

Most company efforts are focused on the three more traditional quadrants.

We’ve seen these programs pick up. 91% of companies say they’ve adjusted their well-being program since the start of the pandemic, according to a 2021 report by Sequoia Consulting. So we're seeing awareness of the issue grow. Yet, the solutions dangled in front of us by the $4 trillion wellness industry and our employers are typically treating the symptoms of our problems only.

What companies need to know is that their solutions are misguided. They lack true ownership of their role in the problem. I even label it as gaslighting.

And employees – with a newfound sense of power – are waking up to this. 60% of workers pre-pandemic said they thought mental health was something to be handled without employer assistance, according to a survey from MetLife insurance. But since the pandemic started, 62% of employees believe that their company has a responsibility for their well-being.

This tide has turned. And organizations serious about keeping their people will need to step up to the plate with both compensation and by creating an anti-burnout culture.

Rebuilding culture to treat wellbeing

We’ve seen rest and recharge days. We’ve seen increased company spending on wellness programs.

These new perks in addition to traditional wellbeing programs, tend to be viewed favorably by employees. The trouble is they do little to actually make employees healthier. Again, they are primarily a retention strategy by employers.

I won’t say no to a gym stipend. But if that’s the extent of the wellbeing program, companies are missing the point.  

Where does that leave us? Employers need to go a large step further. They need to do the hard work of changing the culture. I’m encouraged by the trend of hiring heads of ‘the future of work’ to own this area. But, like DEI, this person will be in title only unless the CEO and leadership team truly commits to change.

What can you do?

The good news: We don’t have to sit back and wait. You as an individual can ask for more from your leaders and company if they truly want to keep you.

When your company gives you formal (surveys) and informal (chats with management) ways to provide feedback, it’s important to give specifics of what true wellbeing looks like to you at work. Otherwise, it will continue to look like solving the symptoms, not the problem.

Ask for the recognition you deserve, ask for opportunities to grow, ask for responsible amounts of work, ask for your boundaries to be respected, ask to be able to actually take time off.

You deserve to learn, grow, be well, and belong. If they can't give you that, somebody else will.

Wellbeing perks are nice. But an anti-burnout culture is nicer.

Ready to downsize your relationship with work and quit burnout?

Hi, I'm Grant Gurewitz. I'm on a mission to eliminate burnout at work. I've been in tech for 10 years (ex-Zillow, current: Qualtrics) who suffered deep burnout and came back from it even though I never found a playbook for doing so. So, I'm writing it myself.

✉️ Want my top tips? I share my full step-by-step playbook in How I Quit Burnout, my premium newsletter. Get the next one delivered straight to your inbox >

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