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Harvard Business Review: Wellness Vendors Make Employees Worse

Do you know whether heartburn pills are safe for long-term use?

As our more alert readers may possibly have noticed just a little bit, there is a battle taking place between advocates of doing wellness to employees (wellness vendors) vs. advocates of doing wellness for employees (the rest of the inhabited solar system).  There are also those who want to do both, what my colleague Jon Robison calls “paradigm straddling”.  This latter group consists of vendors who want to check off the culture-of-wellness box so they sound relevant and supportive and au courant, while continuing to charge employers large sums to screen the stuffing out of their employees. The most hilarious example of the last is Total Wellness. If you haven’t already read their “profile,” it’s well worth the wear and tear on your keypad to click through.

Now, along comes Stanford University’s Emma Seppala, writing “Good Bosses Create More Wellness than Wellness Plans Do” in Harvard Business Review, to draw a bright-line distinction between the two approaches.

Her first paragraph:

In the name of employee wellness, and in response to insurance company demands, corporations are offering well-being initiatives with financial incentives. Complete this cholesterol screening, say, and you’ll get $100 added to your paycheck; participate in some number of wellness programs, and you’ll receive another bonus. In this quest to increase employee wellness, however, organizations are often unwittingly making things worse. Is it any surprise that initial studies on wellness programs are showing they don’t lead to any visible results?

As an aside, even our less alert readers may recall that I got in a lot of trouble with the HERO crowd (Ron Goetzel, Staywell, and Seth Serxner) just for the crime of noticing that their own numbers in their own guidebook showed wellness loses money. Apparently, Ms. Seppala noticed the same thing, because the link in her article in support of the “wellness programs don’t lead to any visible results” comment goes directly to their report. I guess she’s going to be placed on their Enemies List as well, and she can probably also expect them to circulate a “poison pen” letter about her as well, perhaps using the one they wrote about me as a template. Congratulations, Emma!  You’ve arrived.

These programs “can actually cause more stress,” she writes. And she notes that those employees who do take time off for the corporate yoga class etc. get dirty looks from colleagues who need to pick up their slack.

What to Do Instead

It won’t surprise even our least alert readers that Ms. Seppala advocates a Dee Edington-type “culture of wellness,” starting with the work environment itself:

A workplace characterized by humanity. An organizational culture characterized by forgiveness, kindness, trust, respect, and inspiration… Leaders set the tone for their organization, and their behavior determines whether interactions in their organization are characterized by trust, forgiveness, understanding, empathy, generosity, and respect.

I’ll leave the rest for you to read.

Where Does This Leave the Wellness Industry?

You’ll see a lot more paradigm-straddling. Once again, the wellness industry comes through with the quintessential example:  a Pulse post from a wellness vendor called Dacadoo. (There are so many wellness vendors that I guess all the other names have been taken.)

Talking about all the “fun things” that a wellness culture can provide, Dacadoo writes:

[Health fairs] are professionally run events that are designed to provide education and basic medical screening at usually little cost or no cost for the employees. At these fairs employees can undertake some screening tests such as blood pressure, glucose cholesterol, height and weight, anemia, etc.

Speaking of the solar system, anyone from another planet would interpret this passage as employees thinking: “Wow, my employer can weigh me and test me for both ‘glucose cholesterol’ and anemia!  At little or no cost to me? How cool is that?”

And I bet if employees are willing to pay them just a tiny bit more, Dacadoo will also allow them to paint their fence.




  1. Mitch Collins says:



  2. Bethany Garrity says:

    I think you just contributed to my wellbeing, wellness, total wellness, vitality (whatever) by getting a good laugh out of me. I’m still chuckling as I type this. Well written as usual. Thanks for the post!


  3. Don Smith says:

    Treating your employees “Right” obviously is good medicine and positive outcomes will result. But to think that “being Nice”, Or “Forgiving” (poor work, credit for “trying” etc.) or any other over the top warm and fuzzies that we coddle our children and our workforce with only continues to weaken our productivity and motivation for success.

    If anyone wants to argue that making someone aware they are time bomb of high blood pressure or eminent heart disease and give them the OPTION of controlling it does not reduce the costs of health care are not being honest or facing reality. Shame on these “Stat” purveyors.


  4. Kate says:

    You say the wellness programs are “harming” employees but don’t say how/why…and you offer no viable alternatives. I’m curious if you believe that – on the whole – we have a pretty large problem when it comes to the health of our nation? I do agree that many of the vendors (and even some employers) say/do wellness as a check the box and we need to simplify the whole thing….but also believe that, generally speaking, lots of people do not take care of themselves and whole this has any number of bad effects on the person…. it also contributes to higher medical costs. We have to do something… don’t we?


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Thank you for your comment. We DO actually say how employees are being harmed.

      Screening according to guidelines (or deviating for specific reasons, like Club Med might add skin cancer screens) would be one alternative, as opposed to the willy-nilly screening that goes on now, like in our Connecticut example where workers are being harmed with overtreatment and the state is losing a ton of money. is another way that employees can learn about their health and protect themselves from harms.

      But don’t expect money to be saved. As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, the amount of money spent on “wellness sensitive medical events” is trivial, so even a really great program would lose money.


  5. John says:

    Underlying much of what passes for informed comment is the “publish or perish” dictum. This is the phenomenon whereby 5 articles supporting a thesis are followed by one disputing it, usually in high dudgeon. The more notoriety required by the author, the higher the dudgeon. Common sense is a casualty of this process.

    Of course it makes sense to have a healthy workforce. Of course people appreciate an empathetic work environment. Of course providers will try and make money from any human adversity. And of course doing something and doing nothing are both costly. There, I think that covers the Wellness at Work phenomenon.


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