Drivers of the corporate wellness movement

The corporate wellness phenomenon, since its inception mere decades ago, has since skyrocketed in hype, popularity and market value.

Employers are spending more than ever before on investments in human capital. A recent Fidelity and National Business Group on Health (NBGH) survey found that “employers spent an average of $693 per employee on wellness-based incentives in 2015” (Business Wire, 2015).

What are the reasons and motivating factors behind such a seemingly exorbitant spending spree? What factors could possibly persuade multinational corporations, small, and medium-sized businesses alike to make such significant investments in employee health and wellbeing? This article will take a look at the drivers of the workplace wellness trend.

New Ways of Working

The B Team, a not-for-profit conglomerate of leaders dedicated to improving social and environmental wellness through business, published a January 2015 report entitled New Ways of Working.  In it, they describe the key changes taking place in the global working sphere, including new focuses on Purpose-Driven Organizations, Lifelong Growth, and Welcoming Wellbeing, among others. The drivers for these changes include the technological revolution, global changes, and a multigenerational workforce.

Indeed there are many modern efforts being made to combat the often harmful, unintended side effects of the traditional, business as usual model. These side effects, such as stress and burnout have become commonplace characteristics of an increasingly intense and demanding workplace culture. In the era of unpaid internships, unspoken work contracts, and a society which rewards the most ambitious individuals, a steady, predictable working life has been replaced by one which is often characterized by long working hours, the need for constant availability, inescapable technological connectedness, increased competition and job insecurity; leading most people susceptible to making great personal sacrifices for the sake of contributing to the business’s bottom line. The term

The term workaholic was coined in the late 1960’s, to describe a typical person whose intensive working habits appear to others to be a sign of addiction: which defines as, “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma”. Below is a graph from Google Ngrams, which shows the frequency of the use of the English word workaholic between 1950 and 2008.

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Figure 1: Google Ngram search results for ‘workaholic’, 1950 – 2008.

This is contrasted with the data on historical word usage of wellness and corporate wellness below.

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Figure 2: Google Ngram search results for ‘wellness’, 1950 – 2008.

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Figure 3 Google Ngram search results for ‘corporate wellness’, 1950 – 2008.

One might presume that this data confirms the hypothesis that work levels intensified in the 1960s, at the same time women were entering the workplace, with wellness concerns becoming more prevalent at the same time. Corporate wellness, on the other hand, took two decades to catch on and was first made popular twenty years later in the 1980s.

Rising Stress Levels

As one may guess, changing workplace dynamics have led to chronic and widespread stress in the general working population. The American Psychological Association released a 2012 report entitled ‘Stress in America: Our Health at Risk’, which exposed, “high stress levels, reliance on unhealthy behaviors to manage stress and alarming physical health consequences of stress”: a combination which they suggest reveals that America is on the verge of a “stress-induced public health crisis” (Anderson, 2011). The report, which included an overview of individual causes of stress (Figure 4), found that money, work, and the economy were very significant sources of stress for the general population.

Workplace stress is therefore, for the working population, a major contributor to the overall level of stress one experiences. What causes workplace stress? In organizational psychology, stressors in the workplace are defined as “physical or psychological demands to which the individual responds” (Landy, 2009). Common stressors in the workplace include environmental factors such as temperature and noise, workload and time pressure, schedule, role stressors, situational limitations, interpersonal issues, emotional work and in more extreme cases, traumatic job stressors (e.g. violence in the workplace).

Consequences of workplace stress include a great variety of physical, psychological, and behavioral repercussions. Physical or physiological manifestations of stress, which can have medical consequences, often take the form of serious ailments such as heart attack, stroke, digestive problems, back pain, arthritis, headaches, high blood pressure, and hormonal changes. Psychological effects of stress include a sense of burnout, depression, and anxiety, relationship or family conflicts, sleep issues, and general job dissatisfaction. Behaviorally, the effects of stress are visible in a variety of areas, from absence, lateness, poor decision making, and poor job performance, to drug, alcohol, or tobacco abuse, workplace accidents, violence, and ultimately turnover (Landy, 2009).

Modern Disease

Another major factor leading to the modern day corporate wellness trend, besides shifts in the character of our work, is the pervasiveness of diseases and health ailments that are having major impacts on both individuals and organizations. Serious, long-term conditions such as diabetes, which can have disabling and life-threatening health effects, are on the rise: a recent study by the World Health Organization found that the number of adults with diabetes had quadrupled from 1980 to 2014 from 108 to 422 million. Poor diet and lack of exercise were found to be the main factors contributing to this dramatic rise. With each new case of diabetes and similar diseases, health care costs for both employee and employer begin to add up significantly; indeed these numbers are of no small consequence when millions of individuals fall ill to such conditions each year.

Also caused by poor diet and lack of exercise is obesity, which studies have shown to be linked to other serious diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. Is has emerged as one of the most pervasive threats to health in modern times, with nationwide epidemics in developed countries such as the United States and Great Britain. One key finding from a Harvard study showed that rising stress levels can trigger overeating, which is likely to contribute to the onset of diseases like those mentions above. Instead of overeating to deal with stress, the Harvard medical doctor Walter C. Willett recommended to readers to try meditation, more exercise and visiting with friends as a healthy alternative.

With such widespread epidemics gripping the western world and catching up on eastern counterparts, researchers, doctors, politicians, business leaders and governments have taken notice of these worrisome health trends and have begun to encourage new policies and initiatives to bring about positive health changes. They hope not only to decrease the high costs associated with ill health but also to enable the population at large to enjoy an increased overall level of wellbeing. This is yet another significant reason as to the emergence and popularity of wellness programs.  

There are no doubt other factors to mention here, including the generational values shift, which suggests that members of the youngest working demographic have different expectations and working behaviors than those before them. 

For further reading, take a look at the benefits of workplace wellness programs.


Works Cited

Landy, Frank J, Jeffrey M Conte, Frank J. L, and Jeffrey Conte M. y. Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology. 3rd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley, John & Sons, 2009.

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