Some Constructive Criticism on Wellness

By Andie Burjek

Jul. 11, 2017

[vc_row][vc_column] New York Magazine just published an interesting — and fairly critical — article called “How Wellness Became an Epidemic.”

I’ve been thinking about it for the past week. Now, I’ll note that this article focused on the wellness industry at large and not just corporate wellness, but I still think there were some solid takeaways for employers.

Here’s a paragraph that stuck out to me:

“It can be easy to be cynical about wellness, about the $66 jade eggs that Gwyneth Paltrow suggests inserting in your ‘yoni.’ There’s something grotesque about this industry’s emerging at the moment when the most basic health care is still being denied to so many in America and is at risk of being snatched away from millions more. But what’s perhaps most striking about wellness’s ascendancy is that it’s happening because, in our increasingly bifurcated world, even those who do have access to pretty good (and sometimes quite excellent, if quite expensive) traditional health care are left feeling, nonetheless, incredibly unwell.”

It hits the major beats of the article, mainly that A) it can seem like in this industry, wellness is something that can be bought, if only you have the wealth to buy it; and B) in today’s current health care environment, both the haves and the have-nots are feeling unwell in some way and looking for the cure, sometimes in very different places, whether that’s through alternative or traditional treatment.

It’s also worth noting that author Amy Larocca C) entertainingly has a huge problem with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, a “modern lifestyle brand” launched in 2008. Larocca finds much of this advice silly. For example, Goop recommends a vitamin protocol called High School Genes for women who find it harder to lose weight as they age. As Larocca points out, “i.e., ALL WOMEN.” I would add: all people!

I have a few responses related to the employer market. First, do you think “feeling unwell” is an epidemic in the workforce? My perspective is probably skewed because of the articles I read and the people I talk to about wellness, whether it’s mental health, meditation or sleep.

A healthy breakfast is one workplace wellness offering worth having.

From this point of view, it would definitely appear that wellness is an epidemic. But as much as employers push wellness programs, utilization can be low. A lot of reasons might play into this, but there’s one I never hear about: employees who already feel well enough and/or deal with various stresses on their own.

They might not be interested. They might take care of themselves in their own way and not rely on their employer. They may independently track their steps or their mood but feel no need to share that on an app with all their co-workers. They’re doing all right on their own.

Obviously, even these people have stresses in their life. Which brings me to my second point.

Haven’t people always been stressed, only now there’s a whole industry focused on dealing with those stresses? Having highs and lows in any area of health or well-being, whether that’s physical, financial or mental, is the human experience.

On one hand, it’s great that the wellness movement is aiming to help people through these lows. It’s better than the alternative, like not so long ago when even acknowledging mental health problems was taboo. On the other hand, to quote this New York Magazine article again, “It can be easy to be cynical about wellness” when companies try to sell you overpriced solutions you don’t need.

To put this in business-speak, yes, employer-sponsored wellness programs can help a lot of people who are struggling with some health issue. But relatively healthy employees who see these programs as a solution they just don’t need at this point in their lives? Just let them be.

Is it moral to push wellness programs on employees who feel well? Are there some cases where pushing a program on someone can cross the line from simple corporate communication to trying to force a solution on the disinterested? I’d hope corporate wellness doesn’t cross that line and try to create problems where there are none.

I’m optimistic that wellness programs can do a lot of good for companies and employees, otherwise I would not write this blog. I’ve spoken to many HR practitioners at companies who have done very impressive things with their wellness initiatives, whether that’s educating employees on drug prices, teaching about proper nutrition or offering healthy breakfasts in the morning. There’s a lot of excellence happening in this space.

But it’s worth being critical about an industry that has grown so quickly through some means that don’t seem quite kosher, at least in the commercial wellness space. Like convincing people they need things they don’t need.

Employees already have natural stresses in their life. They don’t need anything added to that unnecessarily.

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorComment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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