Workplace Wellness Programs and Respect for Our Humanity

file0001229562991Workplace wellness is a big issue these days. Employers large and small are designing wellness programs to (hopefully) produce healthier employees. I wish I could say that it’s because the top leaders love and care for their employees as people, and in some cases that is certainly true, but what’s motivating most is a desire to maintain or increase profitability by decreasing absenteeism and presenteeism, increasing productivity, and lowering the cost of the employee healthcare benefit.

Increasing profit is a worthy goal as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of treating people humanely; that’s worth a little thought as we business leaders design our wellness programs. In my mind there are three main categories of wellness programs which I’ll term: a) the Public Health approach, b) Carrots & Sticks, and c) Inspire & Invite. In practice, employers typically blend these styles into their own unique program. I believe it’s important to understand each of these methods in order to design an integrated and human-honoring plan.

Public Health

The Public Health approach involves making changes to the physical environment or culture (emotional and behavioral environment) that affect all employees. These broad programs or policies can be either positive (or additions) or negative (or removals). An example might be eliminating candy machines and fried or high-calorie food from the cafeteria. Many firms also have instituted non-smoking campuses. Creating a positive and vibrant “culture of health” is a goal for some employers. In my view these examples are reasonable approaches that can positively shape employee behavior at least while they’re at work.

The counter argument is that such policies suppress or reduce “choices” and that choice is a good thing. This is a valid argument, but we know that people are not always able to make good choices. The Christian worldview suggests that human beings find it nearly impossible to make good choices most of the time; our national problem with lifestyle illness supports that view. Yes, people do need to be protected from themselves (at least a little bit), and it’s not wrong to be somewhat paternalistic in our designing our wellness programs if it comes from our love of and respect for people.

Naturally one can go too far in this direction and restrict liberty in the name of wellness. Banning all possession of candy or fast food on the campus might be an example.   “Food police” are not humane. Similarly a policy of not hiring smokers or creation of a workplace culture where athletics or fitness is glorified and unfit or overweight individuals are shamed does not reflect love and concern for people.

Carrots & Sticks

In a Carrots & Sticks model the employer provides incentives or penalties for certain health behaviors or outcomes. You’ve probably seen many of these. An insurance surcharge for employees who smoke; payments or deductible reductions for employees hitting body mass index targets or completing a health risk assessment are examples. In my view these are also reasonable steps as long as they are accompanied practical tools and help (say health coaching) to enable employees to change, that is, to get the carrot and avoid the stick.

As with the Public Health approach, Carrots & Sticks can be taken too far. Employers may design many-step or many-outcome plans integrated with their insurance benefit and triggering various copayment reductions and other benefit enhancements or penalties. These may continue to increase in complexity or materially change from year to year. Beyond a certain point, I think programs of this type can become attempts to micromanage employees’ lives. Micromanagement does not honor our nature as individual agents. People hate it at work, how much more do they hate it when it involves their personal lives?

Used sparingly, Carrots & Sticks can be good as a stimulus for people to try something new. Sometimes people could use a little help getting ”unstuck” from bad habits. Perhaps that one-time incentive to run a 5K turns a couple of participants into dedicated runners afterwards, or that mandatory health and wellness class gives an individual a nudge towards healthy eating that grows over time. In my case, it was only after joining the Navy (which uses a very big stick approach) that I began to run and found that I actually enjoyed running.

Inspire & Invite

This is pretty simple; people need inspiration, and are inspired by the stories of others and visions for themselves. Business leaders get this as it relates to their business; they create a compelling company vision, and they tell inspirational stories of customer service, overcoming operational challenges, or other business success. They’re trying to inspire and invite employees to contribute to achieving the corporate vision.

How about doing the same for them as individuals? Help them see that they can be well. Find employees to share stories of personal health problems and success in overcoming them. Invite employees to tackle their own health challenges and provide the resources to do so. That’s Inspire & Invite. Personally, and even though at any given time most employees may not be ready to change, this is my favorite approach because it’s about connecting with others on a deep emotional, and even spiritual, level.

Can you take Inspire & Invite too far? Maybe. If it becomes overbearing and creates a culture where people feel hassled, that’s too far. But I haven’t seen that yet. My perception is that employers tend to overdo the Public Health approach and Carrots & Sticks while limiting Inspire & Invite which seems by comparison too “soft” and perhaps less measurable.  Yet it’s exactly this “softness” that people require to truly change on the inside.

Let’s remember what it means to be human while we develop workplace wellness programs for the other humans that we call our employees.


  1. Once again you provide an insightful assessment of a complex issue. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.