In a recent article in Hays Journal, the in-house journal published by international recruitment firm Hays, the company explored whether making participation in workplace wellness programs mandatory for employees would encourage greater uptake and hence lead to greater productivity and efficiency gains for businesses.
“You would be hard pushed to find anybody who is willing to argue the case against wellness programmes. Statistics from United Healthcare show that 62 per cent of employees using them report productivity rises [and] 56 per cent have fewer sick days,” the article stated.
“But despite the benefits, the NBER [US-based National Bureau of Economic Research] study found that less than 39 per cent of eligible employees chose to participate at all.”
Problems of participation
One of the primary problems associated with wellness programs, the article noted, is that those most likely to participate are those who are already physically and mentally fit. Meanwhile the ones employers most want to target are left behind.
It said that several companies around the world have already trialled making such programs mandatory for their staff: Swedish company Björn Borg has reportedly introduced compulsory gym sessions for its staff each Friday, while KPMG reportedly included sessions on yoga and mindfulness as part of a three-day course for its auditors in the UK.
However, the article did not explore whether these programs have proved successful.
What it did point out though is some of the more basic options available to employers to promote wellness among their workforces that do not impinge on freedom of choice.
For instance, one HR leader said that staff requested the provision of an extra fridge so that they could bring in their own healthier lunches.
Mandatory participation could actually hinder uptake
Despite the productivity benefits, most of the experts and HR professionals interviewed by the journal suggested that compulsory participation could ultimately do more harm than good.
They suggested that engagement is achieved by offering choice, and removing that choice is essentially a use of power that can alienate people.
Additionally, it is impossible to find a single activity that works for, or is of interest to, everyone.
Some companies, though, look to take a balanced approach to making participation mandatory. They may offer a choice of exercise and physical activities which employees can opt into, but include compulsory sessions focused more on mental wellbeing, including mindfulness and coping with stress – which have relevance across the board.
Others look to make wellness programs compulsory only for senior management, both to foster a culture of participation further down the hierarchy but also to empower people managers to spot and deal with staff who may be in need of help.
“While there certainly isn’t consensus that a compulsory approach to wellness is the way forward, it seems that organisations are increasingly looking for ways to boost participation,” the article concluded.
“Whether they’re leaning towards new engagement strategies that focus on health, or pushing leaders to get involved in new schemes, many businesses are placing a greater emphasis on addressing wellness among staff.”