How Wellness Become the Wrong Word

What do employers want more than anything? Healthy, engaged, productive, energized, and thriving employees who provide great customer service and high quality products. What they have is all too often the antithesis of that.

This article is about why and how to move away from “wellness” to “wellbeing.” Wellness is one dimensional—the absence of illness. But for employees to thrive, they need so much more. The essence? They need to be happy with what they are doing and where they are doing it. Without that, good physical health, engagement, and productivity are almost impossible. It’s as simple as that, and with happiness comes success on multiple levels for the employee and the employer. And yet the all too many of today’s American employees are dreadfully unhappy with their jobs and bosses. It’s time for that to change.

The companies that successfully address the deteriorating health (both physical and mental/emotional) of their employees have a huge competitive advantage, and not just from reduced healthcare coverage, but in cultivating more enthusiastic, productive, and engaged employees which drive competitive and financial success through better products and better service.

Dee Edington confirmed this in his book Zero Trends when he wrote: “Our mission is to create shareholder value. We create shareholder value because we have innovative, creative, and quality products and services. We have innovative, creative, and quality products and services because we have healthy and productive people.”

This is, as we say in Massachusetts, “wicked important.” Yet most American CEOs do not yet see it as even rising to their level of attention. That is nothing short of astonishing given how much they pay for healthcare coverage and the truly poor value they receive in return. Starbucks pays more for employee coverage than for coffee. GM pays more for coverage than for steel. Businesses don’t realize it, but they are truly in the healthcare coverage business whether they like it or not. And that doesn’t even begin to total up the costs of disengagement, absenteeism, and turnover.

So, what about today’s garden variety workplace “wellness” programs? In fact, they haven’t worked on virtually any level. The “wellness” industry has deservedly opened itself to criticism that “wellness” investments are a waste of resources. Critics have eviscerated the industry all too often.

Typically, workplace “wellness” initiatives have been developed by HR and floated to senior management for approval with the usual justifications of reducing coverage costs and a healthier workforce. Someone in C-Suite, often NOT the CEO, might approve such proposal and its budget. In rare cases, there might even be some business plan. But little else. There are so many other things to focus on like quarterly dividends, customer relations, and the current crisis, whatever that might be.

And then the matter goes back to HR and becomes largely indistinguishable from any other employee benefit plan. Nice to have, but not strategic in any sense. HR might retain a vendor or hire wellness coaches, and may acquire programs that focus on exercise, smoking cessation, and nutrition. All good things, but not nearly enough. Employers also may do the dance of incentives and penalties, but neither result in long term lifestyle change or improved morale.

After a few years of lukewarm enthusiasm and modest employee participation, someone in C-Suite might ask about the return on the program’s investment. Unfortunately, few companies even try to measure returns, and if they did, the numbers would be indeed disappointing. Even so, shouldn’t something be done about healthcare costs? And wellness programs, whatever their returns, just seem like the right thing to do. That is indeed sloppy thinking.

The reasons why today’s workplace wellness programs have not worked are many, but the most important are: lack of strategic focus with a comprehensive approach; focus almost exclusively on the physical health side ignoring mental and emotional health; lack of CEO leadership; absence of a culture of wellbeing; and a one size fits all approach that appeals primarily to the already healthy and fit.

The stark truth is that the wellness industry has accomplished remarkably little in the areas of return on investment (ROI, which I define as reducing employee claims expense by more than the cost of the wellness programs) and long term lifestyle behavior change. To have any chance at positive ROI, the focus must be on chronic illness with a supportive culture of “wellbeing” and caring to maximize employee and family enthusiastic participation. Yet so often, it is not. Swim, gym, and weights alone won’t do the trick. Programs for smoking cessation, weight loss, exercise, and nutrition (traditional “wellness” programs), while helpful on almost any level, do not truly move the needle on coverage costs or employee engagement. They are one size fits all and quite randomly implemented.

Accordingly, it is submitted that we must move away from “wellness” to “wellbeing.” There is a world of difference between those two similar nouns. When our society and our medical profession refer to “wellness” (as in being well), what they really mean is the absence of illness, almost always the physical kind. “Wellbeing” is far broader, meaning a positive physical, mental, and emotional state. The difference is profound.

Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage underscores the importance of this point when he writes:

“You can eliminate depression without making someone happy.  You can cure anxiety without teaching someone optimism.  You can return someone to work without improving their job performance.  If all you strive for is diminishing the bad, you’ll only attain the average and you’ll miss out entirely on the opportunity to exceed the average.”

Despite abundant data from Gallup and others showing the central role of employee wellbeing (as opposed to mere wellness) in driving workplace engagement, American employers haven’t taken the cue. And Gallup has been doing this for decades!!

Gallup’s 2016 Q12 Meta-Analysis of The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes makes it abundantly clear how engagement drives measurable and substantial improvement for “customer loyalty metrics, productivity, employee turnover, safety, absenteeism, patient safety and quality.”  According to Gallup, higher engagement means higher profitability.

And when you combine high levels of wellbeing and engagement, magical things happen. Consider that Gallup’s Well-Being Enhances Benefits of Employee Engagement tells us that the benefits of adding high wellbeing to high engagement are enormous with employees reporting:

  • 42% more likely to evaluate their overall lives highly
  • 27% more likely to report “excellent” performance in their own job at work
  • 27% more likely to report “excellent” performance by their organization
  • 45% more likely to report high levels of adaptability in the presence of change
  • 37% more likely to report always recovering “fully” after illness, injury or hardship
  • 59% less likely to look for a job with a different organization in the next 12 months
  • 18% less likely to change employers in a 12-month period
  • 19% more likely to volunteer their time in the past month

So why is a move away from workplace “wellness” to workplace “wellbeing” so wicked haahd (how we say “very difficult” in Massachusetts) to do well? There is a forest for the trees aspect here. It is so obviously the right thing to do on any business level that it is simply missed. It doesn’t sound critically important or strategic. CEOs and boards are distracted by other things and do not connect the dots between employee wellbeing/engagement and operational success. And if they do consider it, many believe that it is like curing world hunger and sitting around the campfire singing songs. After all, they can’t be responsible for what happens away from work. Yet…they can be responsible for what happens at the workplace, which is where many Americans spend more time than anywhere else and is a primary cause of stress.

Once organizational leaders and boards really, really focus on the importance of the difference between employee wellness and wellbeing, they should have an “aha” moment. Workplace wellbeing should be the​ top strategic objective of any company. Done right, workplace wellbeing must be strategically planned, staffed, and financed like any other mission-critical strategic objective. The outcomes that matter must be measured. Leadership, from top, to mid-level, to front line, must be engaged, enthusiastic, and held accountable. When is the last time a CEO was held accountable by his/her board for employee wellbeing? When is the last time organizations based a significant part of executive incentive compensation on employee wellbeing?

Whole person “wellbeing” must become a defining characteristic of the company’s culture and environment. It must become part of how organizations “do business.” And it most definitely is not too much to take on, particularly considering the potential upside benefits as outlined by Gallup.

Employees and their families must come to understand that the company invests in their wellbeing because it truly does value employees. It also happens to be both the right thing to do and very good business that will reap untold dividends.

More to come on this subject. But please, tell me if I’m wrong. And of course, why. And if you disagree with the move to the word “wellbeing,” what word would you use to be the label for what has been described above?

Jim Purcell is the former CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI, and prior to that, was a healthcare and trial lawyer in Providence RI. Today, he mediates and arbitrates healthcare disputes, and is writing a book to start a national movement for employee wellbeing. See

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