The best workplace wellness program: working less

Much of the time our minds can be lost in fantasising, imagining, dwelling on the past, pondering about the future, or just generally wandering in and out of all sorts of crazy ideas and desires.

This endless mental activity is often harmless — even advantageous to the creative mind. But when we become overworked and get too stressed out, it can become unruly, negative, and disrupt how we go about our daily lives.

When it comes to work, this increased stress and unpredictability and decreased creativity and motivation means only one thing: loss of output. 

Stats from the US estimate stress costs companies over $300 billion annually. On a global level, the accumulated loss in productivity is believed to be valued at around $2.5 trillion.

Stress is clearly big business. But even bigger business is the global industry of initiatives, programs, and products that attempt to manage and combat it.

From triple-filtered air and entire walls covered in plants to standing desks, circadian lighting that changes throughout the day, and as many apples and oranges as you can eat, companies have long been inventing up ways to make their employees feel better.

After all, a happy and healthy employee is a productive employee.

In particular, many stress-busting methods have been collected and delivered under the umbrella of the workplace wellness program. Such programs can include anything from resilience workshops and bi-weekly chair massages to in-house yoga,  puppy day, and monthly mindfulness workshops.

On the surface, employee wellness programs, whether it be meditating or petting a puppy, seem to have no downside. They encourage employees to get up and look after their health, as well as prevent future problems for both employees and staff. 

But many have critiqued the way they’re implemented in the workplace. Some suggest that rather than being a desirable perk, they’re instead a way to offset the responsibility of stress to employees, as well as merely a way of giving them more work to do. They can even discriminate against less healthy employees if they involve financial incentives for taking part, with those that don’t fancy doing that yoga or therapy class being indirectly penalised.

At best, it seems such workplace wellness programs are a nice idea that can reduce employee turnover, at least until the novelty wears off. At worse, they are enforced regimes designed to change employees’ behaviour to fit the needs of the organisation.

The invisible burden of presenteeism

One of the things workplace wellness programs aim to address is unanticipated absenteeism — a burden that can cost hundreds of pounds or more per employee per year.

But as many businesses are now discovering, by effectively reducing absenteeism, you often increase “presenteeism”. Presenteeism is when an employee comes to work when they’re feeling unwell, or are otherwise unfit to perform as well as expected.

Presenteeism is a worry because it has a compound effect: the more you work when you shouldn’t be working, the less productive you become. Not only that, but it can also put other employees at risk of contracting illness, as well as lead to another phenomena called “leavism” — where employees take work on holiday in order to catch up or get ahead.

The result is that creating the conditions so as many employees as possible can work for as long as possible does not improve, but reduces productivity, through having a negative impact on both the quality and quantity of work.

In 2019, a study of 600 business leaders in the UK revealed over 70 percent witnessed presenteeism in the workplace, with over half seeing a rise in people coming into work when ill or during times of stress and periods of change.

In particular, the study noticed it increased over the winter months and school holidays — periods that can bring pressure to work due to childcare worries and increased spending. And as you can imagine, the problem is bigger in London, with 83 percent observing it compared to 63 percent in the North.

The problem of stress is complex. And no matter how good your wellness, mindfulness, or whatever stress-reduction program you have, it can’t look after your kids, pay your bills, give you more time in the day, or change the personality of your manager.

More than that, if a wellness program is asking even more time and energy from already overworked employees, then it may serve to make the problem worse as well as sustain unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable working habits. 

Presenteeism is a clear sign that the rise in stress, stress-related illness, and mental-health issues can’t be solved with the same thinking that created them i.e. the more hours you work, the higher the output or level of productivity.

Of course, employee wellness initiatives may be a part of the solutions, but employees cannot be reduced to fluctuating numbers on a health report sheet. Personal and tailored solutions need to be developed for each individual and organisation, alongside other things such as mental health support, healthcare, remote working options, flexiworking, stricter work hours etc.

A happy and healthy employee may be a productive one. But one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, and if the latter is the only directed outcome of the former, then it’s unlikely to have any real impact. Implicit in wellness is that the company cares about its employees, and if that means sacrificing output and number of hours in the office for their health, then so be it.