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Corporatizing Health: A Look at Workplace Wellness Culture

News & Features | November 20, 2017

From meditation to green smoothie cleanses, improving our wellness has recently become a popular forefront of our society’s concerns. This direction of wellness has not escaped the minds of corporations, many of whom invest in wellness programs. Wellness is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes [their] own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to [their] community.”

For many people, stress comes from the workplace. With work and productivity entrenched into the definition of wellness, it is not surprising that companies are trying to implement various types of these programs across their offices. From biometric screenings to in-office yoga, around 50 percent of US employers offer wellness programs to their employees. Typically, these initiatives are boasted with the goal of helping employees achieve a “healthy” life. But how do these companies define wellness?

The 2012 Research and Development Corporation (RAND) Employer Survey indicates that at firms and organizations with 50 or more employees, 79 percent of employees had access to a wellness program. The specific programs that employers offer can vary, but popular initiatives include personalized wellness screenings to identify health risks, preventive interventions for specific risks, and promotion activities to support active lifestyles.

As a company looking to do just that, Tufts has also created several wellness initiatives for its employees. The University opened a wellness center four years ago through a collaboration with Marathon Health, a company that manages clinics for employers. Health coaching and counseling services are available at the Medford/Somerville, Boston, and Grafton campuses. On the Medford/Somerville campus, the wellness center facility at the Tisch Sports and Fitness Center offers medical services as well. At these facilities, employees, along with their spouses and domestic partners, can receive personalized health assessments and meet with health coaches who provide strategies at no extra cost for tobacco cessation, healthy diet and nutrition, and more.

In an interview with TuftsNow, the University’s official news site, former Director of Benefits and the Human Resources Service Center, Ann Mackenzie, said that Tufts is “committed to investing in our most important asset, our people, and second, to ultimately helping the University and our employees save money on health-care costs.”

In addition to the wellness center, the University also outlines a well-time policy for its employees. Full time employees of the University can use up to eight hours of their accrued sick time each year as “well-time” to participate in wellness activities that have been pre-approved by the administration. The policy names lunch and learn programs and walking programs as some examples of these activities.

Part-time employees, however, have their well-time pro-rated, meaning their well-time hours are dependent on how often they are scheduled to work. In order to use their well-time, all employees, regardless of full-time or part-time status, need to have “good attendance,” and “overall job performance must be rated at a level of ‘Successfully Meets Expectations’ or ‘better,’” as stated in the University’s Human Resource benefits policies. Before using their well-time, employees are required to receive prior approval from their manager and usually are only given well-time in hourly increments. These hours do not carry over from year to year. (The Observer was unable to reach current Director of Benefits Robbyn Dewar for comment, despite several interview requests.)

While the concept of workplace wellness may seem benevolent, the outlined policy illustrates that not all employees receive the same access to these programs. Since they must be approved by the University beforehand, the power to define wellness rests in the hands of their employers. This also prioritizes the employees that the University direct hires, compared to workers who are outsourced through outside companies. One example includes custodial staff, which Tufts subcontracts through C&W Services. Because they aren’t directly employed under the University, there is little incentive for Tufts to take responsibility over the wellness of these workers, who are often left at the margins.

This reveals one element of the darker company motives behind wellness programs. While such programs often claim to have a symbiotic relationship between employer and employee, in reality, the employers’ pockets are frequently the greater beneficiaries. Employers can utilize wellness programs to shift the burden of health costs onto the employees by transforming unmet wellness goals into financial costs. For example, if employees do not meet a fitness benchmark or refuse to participate in a program initiative, they can be punished with fines or higher insurance rates. Wellness programs can also provide a distraction from employers cutting corners to reduce their insurance costs.

In the book The Wellness Syndrome, authors Carl Cederström and André Spicer write that, “when health becomes an ideology, the failure to conform becomes a stigma […] This ideological shift is part of a larger transformation in contemporary culture where individual responsibility and self-expression are morphed with the mindset of a free-market economist.”

According to this ideology, wellness has become a competition for employers. Companies create this mindset by explicitly defining wellness through their programs and defining a narrow set of guidelines that may not apply to everyone. In addition, employers perpetuate their characterization of wellness only to further their own motives; they are not always keeping the workers’ actual wellbeing in mind. If employees do not fit their prejudiced ideal of wellness, they are labeled under the category of “not good enough”—a label that may actually harm their mental wellbeing. This feeds into a problematic mindset that ignores racial, socioeconomic, and ability status by expecting all employees to reach the same goals despite having diverse backgrounds.

This is dangerous, as wellness perks are often a selling point when companies recruit students for internships and entry-level positions. With promises of nap pods, laser tag, and organic gardens, these offers are enticing to students seeking employers who appear committed to them as whole people. Associate Director of Employee Relations Saqi Mehta discusses wellness as a component of the career search. “It’s more about the holistic picture, what career do you want; the wellness piece of it is one picture of it.” She also adds, “It depends on the balance. If it means a company offers more food, it probably means you’re working more and have less time to go out.”

Unfortunately, the power dynamic between employer and employee makes this balance difficult. The ideology behind wellness work programs promotes narrow-minded viewpoints that sustain a discriminatory hierarchy; those who do not live up to the standard of wellness are categorized as outsiders. So how should society define wellness? The answer proves tricky, according to Professor of Occupational Therapy Dr. Linda Tickle-Degnen, who said that “wellness usually is found to be a continuum, not a dichotomous variable.”

 

In addition, she said, measurement of wellness can differ among groups.

 

“People within what might be marginalized groups can have many different experiences of wellness, from low feelings to high feelings of wellness in one dimension, while having completely different feelings of wellness in another dimension,” she said.

Her explanations suggested that employers should take more cautious steps to broaden their definition of wellness and create more transparent policies. Only then can employees reclaim agency over their participation in wellness trends. They can decide if and how they participate in company programs, or seek out alternate forms of care if they choose.

Tufts wellness programs are no exception to this. The University should take responsibility to extend wellness benefits to all employees, and eliminate arbitrary standards that are counterproductive to all employees’ well-being. By having flexible offerings that tailor to individuals, Tufts can create wellness policies that value employees’ lives over their productivity.