Wellness programmes may be causing more problems than they solve

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wellness backfiresFar from making employees healthier, a corporate focus on their wellness may actually be making them unhappier and more prone to illnesses. That is the conclusion of a new book published by two researchers at Cass Business School and Stockholm University. In the book, The Wellness Syndrome, the authors Andre Spicer and Carl Cederström claim that the fixation with monitoring wellbeing and initiating wellness programmes may be having the obverse effect to that intended. The book argues that an obsession with wellness obliges some people to pretend to be happy at work, even when they are not and that the pressure to fit with a corporate notion of what constitutes a ‘well’ person makes them depressed and anxious that they will be labelled by their employer and colleagues if they don’t fit an ideal.

“Today people are constantly faced with the pressure to maximise their own well-being,” said Professor Andre Spicer. “Though it has directed our attention to some of the more harmful aspects of contemporary lifestyles, like over-eating and smoking, there are also some serious but often overlooked downsides of our fanatical attachment to wellness.”

“The pressure to ensure your health can often backfire and actually undermine people’s sense of wellbeing. People who are judged not to be maximising their own well-being are considered to be bad people or to have some kind of moral flaw. Overweight people, for instance, are routinely judged as having other negative characteristics like laziness. As a result new kinds of discrimination based on health and wellbeing are starting to open up. 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,” says Spicer.

The book highlights the particular obsession with wellness in the US where over two thirds of Fortune 250 corporations operate wellness programmes which routinely involve weight loss and exercise programmes and help with perceived issues with eating, smoking and drinking but may also include bans on employing smokers at all to asking people to wear a range of monitors to track their behaviour, sleep patterns, stress levels and bodily functions.

“This myopic focus on wellness can lead to new forms of discrimination,” says Dr Carl Cederstöm. “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. 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.”