Walking Towards Futility: A Wellness Fail

It seems there is nothing that brings HR professionals as much joy as rolling out tortuous physical activities for unwitting employees in the name of “Wellness.” There are companies that, in the quest to promote healthy lifestyles (aka “lower health care premiums”) have mandated everything from Jazzercise to rock climbing to participating in a local 5k run/walk for their employees. And yes…mandated; meaning they’ve tied participation in such activities to performance appraisals and salary reviews.

I once worked for an organization that, to be fair, was very transparent about why it ran and supported a wellness program; to save money. Health insurance costs were forever rising at a seemingly exorbitant rate and, as the company had a self-insured medical plan, this meant each month the checks cut from the company checkbook were growing ever larger. In addition, those expenses that had not sufficiently budgeted for came right out of the end of year calculation for the bonuses paid to leaders. In other words, a few medical catastrophes spread across the employee population (or their covered dependents) might mean that VP Bob wouldn’t be able to buy his vacation home in the mountains.

Sad.

So, with lowering costs as the primary reason, the company launched a Wellness Program a number of years ago. It’s important to note that when a company labels such an initiative a “program,” you have your first clue it has nothing to do with truly caring about people’s health, financial stability or mental and emotional wellness. And this program, like many before and since, had all the hallmarks of failure including making participation a chore (“track your meals and turn in this checklist!”) and running multiple “Biggest Loser” contests which are just about the worst activity to run from both a legal and health standpoint.

There was also, as you may imagine, quite a bit of employee shaming that ran rampant. One of the HR zealots told me, with quite a bit of pride, that he saw it as his DUTY to promote healthy eating. He would wander through the employee lunchroom, on a regular basis, and stop and have discussions with employees about their meal choices: “Sandy! Do you really want to eat that leftover friend chicken? A better choice would be a healthy salad with some lentils and a vinaigrette dressing!”  (inner monologue from Sandy in Accounting: ‘get out of my life crazy HR dude.’)

At one stage, amongst this backdrop of ill-informed and ill-placed intentions, it was dictated from those-on-high that additional physical activities were needed in order to ‘get everyone healthy.’  The answer, determined by an avid runner sitting up high on the org chart, was to institute walking activities! This was to include:

  • Setting up an obstacle course in the company parking lot so employees could head outside during their 10-minute breaks and 30-minute meal time to ‘get in a few steps’
  • Running a Couch-to-5k challenge
  • Awarding points, on the employee’s annual performance evaluation, if they participated in one of several chosen Run/Walks on a Saturday morning

OK, you may think, those aren’t so bad (well, other than the tie-in to a job performance review). But here’s the deal:

This was not a 9-to-5 organization; people weren’t cooped up in an office and sitting at desks all day and thus eager to ‘stretch their legs’ at lunch time.

  • The majority of employees worked evening shifts or overnight so talking a walk in the parking lot would have meant strolling around, in the dark, at 11 PM or 2 AM.
  • The nature of the work meant that most everyone’s job included STANDING ON THEIR FEET and/or WALKING for the duration of their shift; by the time meal time came all they wanted to do was sink into a chair for a few blessed minutes.
  • This was in south Louisiana. In the summer. With heat, humidity and mosquitos as big as your fist.

But running a couch-to-5k challenge? What’s wrong with that? Well, when the average hourly wage is just over $12 per hour it’s a bit much to expect someone to purchase appropriate footwear ($150? $200?) and pay the entrance fees for a 5k.

As for those somewhat-mandated Run/Walks and 5ks, well, all of them (I mean all of them) occur on Saturday mornings; usually kicking off between 7 AM and 9 AM. On a day, and a time, when the vast majority of employees were either just getting off shift after working all night, or, sleeping because they had worked until 3 AM.

Oh yes…there were many wellness fails at this organization:

There was no consideration of the fact that in a multi-gendered workforce that spanned ages 18 to 80, individuals would have not only varying physical abilities but also differing metabolisms.

Activities and plans were formulated by leaders with lots of disposable income and disposable time. Their prism of privilege meant they never gave any thought to the fact that employees had multiple jobs to make ends meet or ate white bread and processed-lunch-meat sandwiches because they couldn’t afford to purchase fresh fruit with granola when their take home pay for the week was $300.

This stuff drives me crazy.

Pass me the quinoa please.

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For a recent conversation “Calling BS on Wellness Programs” – check out this episode of New Yawk HR where we also offer some helpful (hopefully) tips.

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