Why do corporate wellbeing programs turn to dust?

Huge enthusiasm in the beginning… moderate interest a couple of weeks later…  hollow training rooms in the end. We know this scenario only too well. At least if we talk about corporate welfare programs like yoga, lifestyle counselling or any initiative that seems immensely creative and constructive at the very first sight. Australian scholar Gordon B. Spence aimed at finding out what the causes of failure are and how they can be anticipated successfully.


A study recently published in the paper of Sydney Business School discusses the currently quite prevalent fiasco of wellbeing programs. Applying both qualitative and quantitative research methods, Spence investigates the factors intertwined with failure. His first and foremost finding is that …


… many employees simply do not regard wellbeing programs as their most important professional need.


Relating to this, Spence quotes a previous research claiming that the three most essential need at our workplace are:


1. Autonomy (I act of my own free will)

2. Sense of competence (I add value to the world) and…

3. Social connection (I have warm and caring relations with others)


In the present research Spence and his team posed the following question to the employees of two companies: If you could improve one thing at your workplace, what would that be?


The majority voted for the improvement of communication. And this is what they meant by that: to be seen, to be acknowledged, requests to be heard and addressed in practice. This “package” can be considered as the need for “autonomy” and “social connection” like we discussed above.

There were many participants who would have requested more material and educational support in their work. (This request resonates with the need for “competence” also mentioned above.) The third biggest group of respondents wanted to ask for a stronger bond within their community – with the help of more frequent social programs or by simply diminishing the gap between the “big shots” and themselves. (This request is also related to the need for “social connection”.) The participants did not mention wellbeing programs specifically in this research.       


Besides all this, it is important to note that the present research did not work with a representative sample so the results cannot be generalized completely… and Spence himself claims:


It’s not that wellbeing programs are useless and unnecessary. Success depends a lot on the employees… and of course on the employers, as well.

On the side of the EMPLOYEES the success is dependent on:


  • Their receptivity towards the program: whether or not they regard the event valuable with respect to their own personal or professional development.
  • The workload and time pressure they have AND whether their managers truly accept the fact that the participation will entail some absence from work.
  • The opportunities (e.g. in financial terms) they have to enter such programs. If employees have only restricted access, they are more likely to appreciate the programs their employer provides.
  • Their willingness to change and develop.
  • Whether employees think wellbeing is their own responsibility. If it is regarded their own duty, they are more likely to refrain from the participation in such programs.
  • Whether employees think the expectation towards them is bigger than the ones their managers are able to handle. In this case, they are not too happy to enroll in such programs, either.    


Photo: Om Body Health


And as for the EMPLOYERS we can claim:


  • Many HR professionals tend to focus on greater “strategic” goals and there is less attention left on the individual. So a lot of wellbeing programs are not tailor-made at all.
  • Certain welfare programs “taste too artificial”, i.e. employees sense that their attitude, personality or behaviour are “forced” to be developed by the company’s HR experts.
  • Many regard wellbeing programs as a mere PR tool and this can also decrease their willingness to participate.


According to Spence another problem with welfare programs is that they are difficult be measured and justified; therefore, the management is often quite sceptical… And all this can be “sixth-sensed” somehow by their people. Additionally, the author cites another research claiming that 20% of the respondents do not think it is the company’s duty to improve their employees’ welfare. All things considered, it’s not really surprising that many welfare programs will eventually turn to dust.


Luckily enough, the Australian researcher is not only moaning but has a couple of practical tips and tricks worth testing:


1. It can be useful to involve our employees in the testing process of the given program: whether or not it will meet their real needs.


2. The promoted norm / behaviour / pattern should be visible also on executive levels so any discrepancy between expectations and reality is to be avoided.


3. It’s also worth detecting whether there is any resistance towards change and development on the side of the employees. If opposition is discovered, a wellbeing program is simply a waste of time and money: first this resistance should be demolished.


4. The management is required to clearly communicate the goals of the given program. This way we could avoid unnecessary guessing and cynicism regarding our aims.


5. Every HR professional and manager had better understand that employees’ wellbeing backs up the company’s wellbeing and development.


6. If there is too much mistrust towards the company and/or the employee satisfaction is too low, a wellbeing program might aggravate the situation. In such a case we are advised to deal with the most basic needs of our employees.


I would like to add my own comments to this list by taking into consideration the research results discussed above. If we accept the hypothesis that employee satisfaction is contingent on autonomy, competence and social connection, there must be a space for wellbeing programs that support these needs.


So if:


  • participants have the experience that the given program supports them…
  • and because of this they want to participate in the program of their own will (autonomy)…
  • and their experiences there make them more resilient and competent (competency)…
  • and at last but not least they have the chance to connect with colleagues stenghtening their social relations…


….then the given welfare program will have a valuable place in our OD strategy.



Gordon B. Spence: Workplace wellbeing programs: if you build it they may NOT come…because it’s not what they really need!