HR & Management

"Creeping cult of corporate wellness" is making employees feel sick

5 min read

28 January 2015

A "creeping cult of corporate wellness" is making employees feel sick, according to academic researchers.

A “creeping cult of wellness” is infecting the workplace, and far from making employees healthier and happier, it could be making them feel worse, business school professors claim.

Academics at Cass Business School, part of City University London, and Stockholm University, in Sweden, argue a relentless focus on health and happiness is giving rise to “wellness syndrome”.

“For many years, governments have attempted to control how much people eat and drink, whether we smoke and exercise, and how happy we feel,” says Professor Andre Spicer of Cass Business School. “More recently, big companies have got in on the act as well. They encourage employees to sign up to wellness plans which require them to adopt a healthy diet, exercise, quit smoking and cut down on their drinking.”

This fixation on health and happiness often backfires, he says, An obsession with individual wellness actually makes some people more anxious, guilty, depressed and ultimately unhealthy, both physically and mentally. Additionally employees are under pressure to keep up an appearance of being upbeat and happy, even when they are not.

“The pressure to maximise our wellness can make us feel worse. We have started to think that a person who is healthy and happy is a morally good person while people who are unhealthy and unhappy are moral failures,” explains Spicer.

The research weigh up their evidence in a new book, The Wellness Syndrome. In it, they unearth stories of how the quest for health and happiness is leading to extreme consequences. 

They find an increasing number of companies are introducing wellness programmes for their employees. In the US, companies spend over $6bn on employee wellness programmes. 

Over 70 per cent of Fortune 250 have employee wellness programmes in place. These programmes can include everything from smoking cessation and weight loss programmes to free gym memberships, healthy eating advice and life coaching. 

Some organisations have shifted from banning smoking to banning smokers. Following the lead of the prestigious Mayo Clinic, many health care organisations now do not employ people who smoke. They routinely test their employees to ensure they stay away from the cigarettes. 

Other firms have forced their employees to start wearing life-tracking technologies which keep a record of their heart rates, stress levels, how much they eat and their sleeping patterns. One London based hedge fund uses these technologies to keep tabs on their traders’ habits out of work which might mean they make risky decisions on the job.

CEOs routinely display their physical prowess with macho activities such as intense gym routines, engaging in adventure sports and endurance activities. The number of US CEOs who ran marathons increased 85 per cent between 2001 and 2011. 

“The assumption is that to be a good corporate leader, you don’t just need to be good at your job, you also need to be super fit,” says Dr Carl Cederstöm of Stockholm University.

“This myopic focus on wellness can lead to new forms of discrimination. It can lead to people who have a perfectly suitable skill-set for a job being overlooked because they are deemed to be unhealthy or unfit. People who fail to look after their bodies are now demonised as lazy, feeble or weak-willed.”

Google offers employees mindfulness courses, healthy eating and opportunities for exercise. The aim, according to an executive chef at the company, was to “create the illusion you were not at work but on some type of cruise or resort”. At Scania, the Swedish Vehicle manufacturer, unhealthy employees are encouraged to attend a health school where they learn about how to lead a healthier life-style. 

“Wellness can mean people are taken in by pseudo-science, when more rigorous tested methods would be more appropriate. Some wellness interventions can stop people from dealing with the real medical problems,” Cederstöm adds.