Book Extract | Why wellness programmes often fail

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Stressproof - The Game Plan by Richard Sutton
Stressproof - The Game Plan by Richard Sutton


The world faces a “giant storm” of stress and burnout that is exacerbated in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the fourth industrial revolution. Learning how to navigate the world going forward is something that everyone has to do.

Stressproof: The Game Plan by Richard Sutton speaks to the crisis currently facing the professional landscape. It outlines the conundrum of stress and its performance advantage versus its destructiveness; and it focuses on the stress-related challenges facing decision-makers in the world of business today.

In this edited extract, Sutton looks at why most wellness does not address the primary issues that impact employee health and wellbeing.

Title: Stressproof: The Game Plan

Author: Richard Sutton

Publisher: Pan Macmillan SA

Price: R310 (paperback); R248 (ebook)

Published: January 2021

Some wellness platforms are able to rapidly transform an organisation, while others have no impact. The drivers in unprecedented success or utter disappointment are complex and multifactorial, with many converging layers such as culture, budget, size of the workforce and environment.

What won’t work, however, is offering an annual (poorly attended) health screening, a poster in the bathroom encouraging employees to have a flu shot or a subscription to a remote counselling service that the workforce doesn’t connect to, let alone trust. Average effort simply won’t translate into an exceptional outcome, but neither will a multimillion-rand investment in state-of-the-art gym equipment or bringing on board a team of the country’s best health professionals.

New wellness visions fail to achieve their intended outcomes due to a number of reasons, but the primary reasons include time limitations, not addressing the root cause of the problem and underexposure to the new vision.

The time factor

Exercise, meditation, yoga sessions, trips to the health store, seminars (digital or live), workshops, preparing healthy meals and seeing a physical therapist all take time – and loads of it. With so many businesses downsizing and restructuring, fewer employees find themselves fulfilling the roles that were historically performed by many. While technology and automation has certainly improved some professional efficiencies, many of us find ourselves fulfilling multiple roles or even new and vastly expanded portfolios. The challenge the world’s workforce is facing is that even when the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has started to recede, businesses are likely to continue to use fewer employees than before.

Add a family to the average person’s time-strapped day and it is not surprising that employees just don’t have the time to participate in the company wellness programme.

For many, their day will look like this: Get up at 5am (or earlier if you have very young kids or a long commute), dress the kids, give them breakfast, rush them to school (or sit down with them for home schooling), rush to work (or sit at your home workstation), fetch the kids from school (or monitor their learning progress throughout the day), go back to work (or sit back at your home workstation), organise lunch, coordinate extramurals (or additional skills development), get home from the office (or step away from your home workstation), help with homework (or additional schoolwork), make dinner, bath and put the kids to bed and, finally, eat your own dinner, respond to a few emails, watch a few minutes of TV and the whole cycle repeats itself the next day.

Time is the biggest consideration in every wellness programme and initiative introduced in any company.

Stressproof - Playing for Time
Stressproof - Playing for Time

According to a 165-page report compiled by Rand Health Care, part of the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis, nearly half of US employers with more than 50 employees currently offer some sort of wellness programme. This popularity has enabled researchers to access a wealth of information in many core areas, including participation trends, which are mostly voluntary as opposed to mandatory. According to the report, only 47% of employees actually participate in annual or biannual screening assessments.

The primary reason given for such low engagement was insufficient time due to work-related demands and responsibilities.

Most screening protocols take only a few hours and don’t happen more than once or twice a year, so if a workforce can’t afford (or is unwilling) to make time for these basic screenings, the other more rigorous and time-intensive activities would fare really poorly, according to this report. Participation levels in regular exercise and disease management programmes (ie wellness education, counselling, podcasts and so on) within US companies is a mere 16% to 21%.

The message here is that a successful wellness vision must factor in inherent time constraints, especially with all the changes that have taken place around us.

Stressproof - Benefits of wellness programmes
Stressproof - Benefits of wellness programmes

Not addressing the root cause

Many wellness programmes fail to deliver on expectations because they don’t address the primary issues, such as organisational culture and management practices, that impact employee health and wellbeing.

Stress in the workplace is as harmful to our health as second-hand smoke, a known and regulated carcinogen.

Stressproof - Address the cause
Stressproof - Address the cause


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