Is your wellness program killing employee morale?

Thousands of organizations across the country have adopted corporate wellness programs with the hope of improving employee morale and the promise of saving on insurance premiums. However, many wellness programs are not only failing to improve employee wellbeing (and costing you more money), they may actually be eroding employee engagement at work.

We’re not anti-wellness at Salveo Partners. In fact, we believe traditional wellness programs can offer some health benefits to employees in the short term. However, we stand behind the scientific research that concludes tying insurance premiums to health behaviors and outcomes does not save money or improve health.

Incentive-based wellness programs (what we call “wellness or else!”) are not only ineffective, they are also likely to be detrimental to employee and organizational wellbeing. Again, we rely on the research. More than 30 years of scientific evidence shows that extrinsic motivation does not result in sustainable behavior change. But more than that, extrinsic motivation in the form of rewards and punishments diminishes performance and creativity, fosters short-term thinking, cheating, lying and taking shortcuts; reduces intrinsic motivation and can actually become habit forming!

Like the majority of readers, you’re probably in the middle of your corporate wellness programs, and you’re thinking: well, what can I do now?

Before you panic, we can help! You can begin improving the wellbeing of your employees and your organization right now by changing your focus and changing your message.

We can’t promise that it will be quick or easy, but the sooner you start rethinking the way you do workplace wellness, the sooner your organization will reap the benefits.

Change Your Focus

You can’t stop your corporate wellness programs while they are in progress, but you can change your focus. (For now, continue with the wellness programs and incentives as planned, as failing to deliver on your promises will quickly erode employee morale.)

Instead of a narrow focus on healthy behaviors, communicate about employee wellbeing in a holistic way. The difference between “wellness” and “wellbeing” is more than just semantics: the term “wellness” has unfortunately come to signify a person’s health-related behaviors and risk factors for illness, whereas “wellbeing” refers to the health of the whole person, and addresses the underlying thinking, feelings and context that guide a person’s behavior. According to research from the Gallup Organization, employee wellbeing comprises five interconnected elements:

  • Social
  • Physical/emotional
  • Financial
  • Community
  • Career

The good news is that you probably already have benefits, programs, and resources that are supporting many of these aspects of employee wellbeing!

Change your Message

Instead of viewing wellbeing as yet another program or initiative, focus on repackaging what you already have. Communicating about wellbeing doesn’t need to be complicated or require extensive design work. Something like this simple Employee Wellbeing Overview can effectively convey all that you have to offer that supports wellbeing in your organization.

Here are some examples to get you thinking:

Social wellbeing (maintaining quality relationships)

  • PTO
  • Employee Assistance Programs
  • Adoption assistance
  • New baby leave (for moms & dads)
  • Effective communication classes
  • Nursing mothers’ room

Physical/Emotional wellbeing (having enough physical and mental energy to get important things done each day)

  • Options for healthful food in cafeteria
  • Standing meetings
  • 100% insurance coverage for appropriate preventive care
  • Relaxation or “fun” areas in the office
  • Employee Assistance Programs
  • Workshops on life purpose/ resiliency

Financial wellbeing (having a sense of financial security and effectively managing money)

  • Retirement plans
  • Company-paid disability plans
  • Bonus opportunities
  • Financial budgeting resources

Community wellbeing (feeling a connection to the community in which you live)

  • Paid time off for volunteering
  • Company-sponsored charitable events
  • Environmental initiatives

Career wellbeing (liking what you do every day, having meaning and purpose in your work)

  • Mentoring programs
  • Training & development opportunities
  • Employee recognition policies and programs
  • Strengths-based career planning

Shifting the way you communicate about wellness will tell employees that you value them for all of who they are, not just what they can “give” to your organization.

Don’t let your current “wellness or else” programs derail employee morale! By shifting the focus away from risk factors and healthy behaviors and instead stressing the importance of employee wellbeing and engagement, you will be on your way to becoming a healthier organization.

Our 7 Points of Transformation are designed to help companies develop thriving workplace cultures where employees are free, fueled, and inspired to bring their best to work each day. For an overview, download this FREE chapter from our book, “How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work, Featuring the 7 Points of Transformation.”

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: or

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