Corporate Workplace Wellness Woes

Jan. 25 was Bell Let’s Talk day, a day that should, inarguably, be every day of the year. Unfortunately, when it comes to the workplace, 65 per cent of working Canadians would not tell their manager if they had a mental health problem, according to a 2013 Ipsos Reid (now Ipsos) poll.

This reluctance to talk about mental health at work exists, despite the troubling reality that 30 per cent of Canada Pension Plan disability claims stem from mental illness — the number one cause of all claims, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

With greater pressure on employers to respond to these statistics and, in particular, lost revenue from disability leave, the age of corporate wellness programs has dawned. Companies now have corporate wellness personnel. They promote benefits like fitness facilities, wellness lunch-and-learns, healthy catered meals, nutritious snacks and reimbursement for wellness-related expenses.

These are excellent perks to get workers through a grueling Monday-to-Friday grind. Who doesn’t love free, healthy food at work?

At the same time, workplace wellness programs should be seen for what they are: a symptom of sick workplaces and the exploitative nature of modern day employment.

When we look at the way in which wellness programs are packaged and sold to companies, it’s clear that the real boon is in their potential to maximize profits. Toronto wellness consultants Tri Fit sell their services using marketing language like “Healthy Body, Strong Bottom Line,” and “Better Health, Better Business.” The push for health at work is not primarily about making lives better.

While the profit motive behind these programs is troubling, equally problematic is the concept of workplace wellness itself, specifically the idea that health can be detached from the larger context of a person’s life and isolated to the confines of an office or cubicle.

As reactive (and not proactive) solutions, corporate wellness programs are only capable of pushing superficial change. These approaches are bound to fail unless organizations introduce significant cultural and structural changes to employee work arrangements and performance expectations — or more likely, until those changes are legislated.

The following examples illustrate how it’s quite easy to meet healthy workplace standards from a policy perspective without addressing the root causes of an unhealthy work culture.

Workplace wellness programs can help teach stress management. But unless active measures are taken to eliminate unnecessary sources of stress at work, teaching an employee to respond differently to stress unfairly shifts the burden onto workers.

Workplace wellness programs can provide ergonomic assessments to ensure that work stations are retrofitted to each worker’s body. This change does not address the expectation of sedentary seated work, which, according to recent studies from Canada, Australia and the United States, may be linked to premature mortality.

Likewise, physical activity programs can help employees negotiate the unhealthy expectation of prolonged sitting. But without a concerted management effort to shift performance expectations, this approach cannot ensure that employees have time to take advantage of these opportunities while meeting the demands of their jobs.

Workplace wellness programs can also encourage healthy eating at work by providing nutritious snacks and cooking classes. They cannot ensure that employees have the time, energy and resources, before and after work, to make nutritious meals for themselves and their families, particularly considering the always-connected nature of contemporary work.

Finally, companies can promote generous benefits like unlimited vacation days. But without addressing a culture where workaholism is rewarded (however subversively), they cannot guarantee that employees will feel free to take even enough vacation time to meet national averages.

When viewed from a policy level, those examples all look like health promotion. Indeed, such a workplace might even meet the criteria for a Healthy Workplace Award from the Region of Waterloo.

Awards are nice, but without interrogating our current paradigm of what it means to work and have a career, we are only scratching the surface. Real change requires that Canadians embrace a fairly radical cultural shift that sees workplace wellness holistically — that is, inseparable from the whole picture of individual and public wellness.

We can thank the labour movement for freeing us from the industrial-age servitude of a fourteen-hour work day, but let’s face it: the forty-hour work week is not exactly an innovation in work-life balance. Most adults spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else.

If we really begin talking about mental health, as Bell’s campaign asks us to do, we’ll see that the greater challenge lies in making organizational changes. Sweden’s six-hour work day is one example. These shifts may demand a relatively small financial sacrifice from corporations in favour of true human flourishing.