Workplace wellness programs - should they be mandatory?

A wellness program should be a key component of every company’s culture development but making it compulsory would cross the line in terms of responsibility and open a liability can of worms.

Wellness enters the workforce as research points to the benefits it brings to both employees and the bottom line.

A 2018 study by US health fund UnitedHealthcare found 56 per cent of people who participated in wellness programs took fewer sick days, and companies such as IBM are even paying staff who complete such courses. Should employers make wellness program participation compulsory?

Erin McLoughlin

Director of people and culture at Hays

Erin McLoughlin“Compulsory” is not a word that typically engenders a sense of excitement, buy-in or appreciation, is it? The case for wellness programs is proven, and the measurable impact driven by well-executed wellness programs is compelling. It’s therefore understandably attractive for organisations to toy with the idea of mandatory wellness program participation.

However, looking at compulsory wellness through the lens of basic human psychology, the idea appears to be conceptually flawed from the outset. Above all, human beings value their free will. By removing the option to self-select to participate in wellness activities, it immediately devalues the wellness proposition as it becomes “something I have to do” over “something I want to do” – in essence an obligation over a benefit.

This is our view at Hays, which is why our focus is on maximising engagement with our wellness program as opposed to mandating it. We work closely and collaboratively with the business around the design and evolution of the program. This ensures relevance and, in turn, is valued by our employees.

“‘Compulsory’ is not a word that typically engenders a sense of excitement, buy-in or appreciation, is it?” Erin McLoughlin

We’ve also empowered wellness champions to drive participation and promote engagement across all office locations. When we first launched our wellness program in 2017, we had six self-nominated wellness champions. This has now increased to more than 30. Leveraging the interest and enthusiasm of our people has been by far one of the most effective ways we’ve driven adoption of wellness programs across our business.

Wayne Dart

CEO and founder of Corporate Wellness Australia

Wayne DartAside from the evidence supporting the benefits of wellness programs, in a time of decreasing loyalty, ever-increasing stress and digital device obsession, a company that doesn’t implement a wellness program will struggle to attract and hold on to the best people. It’s well documented that people will accept less pay if there are better working conditions, such as flexible working hours, wellness programs and the opportunity to work from home.

However, should a company be “responsible” for the wellness of its teams, therefore making programs compulsory? It is my view that people today love to point the finger or hand over their responsibility, and therefore accountability, to third parties.

Compulsory wellness programming would open up the doors to all sorts of liabilities that at present fall to the individual. Every day we see people who simply need to step up and adopt a leadership mentality when it comes to owning their own wellbeing.

Through more than 15 years of observing people’s approach to wellness, I find more folk are finding it easier to make up excuses about why they make negative decisions that affect their health. It’s not that they don’t value their health, they are simply listening to media about the latest fad with a focus on weight loss and not strength and functionality.

“Compulsory wellness programming would open up the doors to all sorts of liabilities that at present fall to the individual.” Wayne Dart

Yes, a wellness program should be a key component of every company’s culture development. However, I think to make it compulsory would cross the line in terms of responsibility and open a liability can of worms.

Patrice O'Brien

General manager workplace, partnerships and engagement at Beyond Blue 

Pratrice OBrienIt’s becoming better understood that the overall wellness of an employee has a huge impact on how they can contribute productively in their workplace. Beyond Blue welcomes this focus, not only on physical wellbeing, but particularly on mental wellbeing.

Beyond Blue’s Heads Up program, developed in conjunction with the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, shines a light on the value of mentally healthy workplaces and provides comprehensive information on how to achieve it in your workplace. It also provides guidance for leaders and managers and tips for employees on how to nurture their mental health.

While we are passionate advocates for workplace wellness programs, Beyond Blue doesn’t believe they should be compulsory.

Beyond Blue has lots of experience in behaviour change programs. We know that enduring transformation occurs when people acknowledge a benefit and willingly change their behaviour, rather than being compelled to change.

“Enduring transformation occurs when people acknowledge a benefit and willingly change their behaviour, rather than being compelled to change.” Patrice O'Brien

Our ambition is to promote the case for mentally healthy workplaces, so that organisation leaders accept the value of such programs and then take the initiative themselves. By improving their knowledge of workplace mental health, identifying influential staff champions to take up the cause, and allowing everyone to identify risks and provide solutions, leaders lay the groundwork for people to thrive.

Allowing staff to have their say will help identify common barriers to creating a mentally healthy organisation, such as the amount of time employees spend at work, the intensity of the work they do, clarity about their roles and responsibilities, and how they can convey constructive feedback.

The experts

Erin McLoughlin
Erin McLoughlin is a member of the Hays ANZ board as director of people and culture. She has a focus on the evolvement of Hays’ training and development programs, as well as championing initiatives to maximise the engagement of Hays’ people and to ensure the company’s status as an employer of choice across Australia and New Zealand.

Wayne Dart
Wayne Dart is the CEO and founder of Corporate Wellness Australia, which specialises in delivering health-related services in order to build a wellness-focused culture within companies of all shapes and sizes on a global scale.

Patrice O’Brien
Patrice O’Brien is the general manager of workplace, partnerships and engagement at Beyond Blue, an independent, not-for-profit organisation that provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health. Leading Beyond Blue’s national Workplace, Partnerships and Engagement Group, she drives activities to promote mentally healthy workplaces Australia wide, guides the establishment of strategic partnerships for Beyond Blue and leads Beyond Blue’s community engagement activities.

Read next: The high costs of ignoring mental health in the workplace


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June 2019
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