Why you should think twice before investing in wellness programs or wellness professionals

The workplace wellness industry is worth a staggering $53 billion worldwide today, and is projected to grow to $96 billion by 2030. Business leaders are being urged to invest in a vast array of wellness programs and practices, from home yoga to sleep and support rooms. best preventive health practices.

Some of these efforts have important goals and may be worth significant investment if they can deliver on their promises. It is clear that reducing employee smoking, weight, alcohol consumption, blood pressure and blood sugar by any available means, if successful, will result in significant reductions in absenteeism and health care costs for the company. “If success” is key here. Changing behavior is notoriously difficult to achieve.

Things get a little murkier when it comes to programs aimed at promoting mental health and reducing or preventing stress and burnout. Some serious questions surface and need to be answered.

What is mental health anyway? Can workplace apps improve it? And what is burnout really? Can the Chief Wellness Officer prevent this? Is it possible that programs touted to promote mental health and prevent burnout may be doing more harm than good?

What is mental health?

The simplest and probably the best definition of mental health is attributed to Sigmund Freud: mental health is “the ability to love and work.” The ability to love and work implies the absence of strong emotional disturbances. The ability to love implies the ability for meaningful human connections and commitments, a set of values ​​and the maturity to respect them. Work capacity means that a person can plan a job or career path that they find satisfying or meaningful, focus while working, and mobilize the cognitive, physical, and emotional resources necessary for their performance. But no one lives, loves and works in a vacuum. Work capacity depends not only on the person. There must be an environment that enables them to work, providing the necessary structure and support.

For example, a trained trauma nurse can make an important contribution to a disaster—an earthquake, fire, or crime scene. But they can only maintain this level of performance for a few hours, maybe a day or two at most. Inevitably, fatigue cannot be avoided, protection against the effects of trauma is destroyed, and the supporting release of adrenaline drops. A trauma nurse is usually supported by the structures of the hospital and emergency department in which they work, with support staff, team members, supervisors, equipment, shift restrictions, etc.—the practices, people, and policies that enable the nurse to work effectively for long periods of time.

Mental health is also the absence of serious and disabling mental illnesses. Businesses should help their employees avoid or treat serious mental illness by providing them with necessary intervention services, adequate and flexible leave policies, and top-notch health insurance. Enormous challenges remain in fulfilling the promise of parity in mental health care, but these issues are beyond the scope of this article. And they are usually not the target of wellness programs.

What is burnout?

Burnout is not a psychiatric diagnosis, although in 2019 the World Health Organization gave it the status of a “syndrome”. This is not a medical term, but arose from the observations of social and organizational psychologists. Dr. Christina Maslach, a social psychologist and leading researcher in the field, defines burnout as a state of “extreme exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and disengagement from work, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of achievement.”

According to researchers, burnout results from a three-part sequence: (1) job stress due to demands that exceed individual resources, leading to (2) exhaustion and anxiety, leading to (3) attitudinal changes such as cynicism, to cope

How can a wellness program help prevent burnout?

To have a positive effect, an intervention program must radically change at least one of the three parts in the above sequence. Most wellness programs that aim to increase employee satisfaction or reduce burnout focus on the second step—the individual response to burnout and anxiety. Give employees meditation tools, spaces to play, or even flexible work hours. Create peer support groups and affinity groups.

This may be structurally and ethically wrong. The first state of burnout, when workplace demands exceed human resources, requires priority attention. There are still too many cases of made-up emergencies, young lawyers who must work 16-hour days to prove their commitment to the cause, teachers who bring their own colored pencils and toilet paper to work, and health workers who work for the limits of their capabilities.

Employers should do everything they can to examine the demands they place on employees. Look at meetings, deadlines, urgent expectations that aren’t really urgent. Eliminate what can be eliminated and add flexibility where possible. Continue to explore the balance between job demands and human capabilities and adjust accordingly.

In addition to the balance between demands and personal resources, key elements that create mental health in the workplace

1. Feeling that someone is heard.

2. Meaningful word during operations when appropriate (gives the worker a sense of agency).

3. A sense of meaning and purpose.

4. Work that is compatible with a busy personal life. In practice, this means you get home in time to spend time with your little ones before they go to bed.

Creating a chief health officer position in a hospital or law firm is a foolish investment unless they have the authority to tell managers that young workers should be able to go home to their families at a reasonable hour and enforce that message.

Anything an employer can do to enhance employees’ experiences of meaning, purpose, and agency will shift the balance of demand and resources in a positive direction.

At the hospital, ask transporters for their thoughts on improving patient transport. At the law firm, ask junior lawyers for their thoughts on how to make their workloads and schedules manageable. Very often the manager, if anyone else, is asked about the procedures, rather than the people who actually handle the day-to-day operations. And obviously, follow the suggestions and directions of frontline workers whenever possible. And explain why you can’t when you do.

A must-read by organizational psychologist Peter Leises and community psychoanalyst Marie Rudden, From the ground up: How frontline workers can save America’s health caremakes a compelling and compelling argument that the only effective way to improve organizational operations is to listen to front-line staff and let them take the lead in charting a more efficient and effective course.

Although Leizes and Rudden’s research focuses on organizational change rather than individual employee satisfaction, retention, or burnout, they focus squarely on the substance of the medium. No amount of wellness amenities or friendly officers will reduce employee burnout and increase efficiency and retention if the systems they work in are stupid, archaic, inefficient, cruel, or inhumane.

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