Boyden Executive Search

Employee health programmes can be a good investment in worker productivity, but if they inflict stress or invade privacy, they can also backfire.

Health and wellness programmes start with good intentions. If they help keep employees healthy and productive, everyone wins. But in practice, the outcomes are not always straightforward. A decades-long plan at U.S. multinational Johnson & Johnson (J&J) focused on changing employees’ habits, helping them lose weight, stop smoking and the like. According to J&J, the programme allowed it to lower its medical costs and helped lessen heart disease and high blood pressure among workers. It is reasonable to infer that these changes brought about productivity gains.

However, the effects of employee wellness programmes or workplace health promotion are more nuanced. The University of Connecticut, in a 2015 study, “The Productivity Dilemma in Workplace Health Promotion”, took a closer look. It found that in 2005-2008, there was a steep rise in alcohol use, depression and stress among J&J employees. Around this time, the company had set a target of raising productivity by 9% a year. Correlation is not causation, but there could be a lesson here: A programme meant to boost worker productivity can be undercut by high productivity demands.

The return on investment of wellness programmes is difficult to quantify, and companies rarely do. More commonly, they operate on a set of assumptions. A study from RAND Europe, contrary to popular belief, found no conclusive evidence linking bad habits and worker productivity. Instead, productivity problems were more often associated with lack of sleep, financial concerns and mental health issues, all of which can arise from work-related stress, The Economist reports.

Health programmes that target employee behaviours can also raise privacy issues; with the advent of connected devices, this risk has never been more acute. At some companies, employees wear fitness trackers that monitor their exercise and sleep habits. Often there are incentives tied to meeting goals. Voluntary participation, which is the norm, makes the practice no less invasive.

In countries where the health system depends on insurance, more of the burden of health maintenance shifts to individuals. In this context, there may be a better case for monitoring employee behaviours with connected devices. But even in the UK, which has a public health service, the share of employees who were offered wearable devices by their employer rose by 37%, based on research from 2017.

The use of technology to monitor employees as part of employee wellness initiatives is growing more common, and taking on more insidious forms. Some firms have already realized the science fiction vision of devices implanted under their workers’ skin. This gives employees the ability to open doors and pay for on-campus meals, but it’s fair to say such measures go too far. Perhaps workplace health promotion would be more effective if it focused on improving morale and instilling a sense of ownership and belonging, rather than on a bottom-line productivity agenda.

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