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Employee wellness: sound sense or snake oil?

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  • Picture of Dr Neil Thompson FRSA
    Dr Neil Thompson FRSA
    Vice President Vigoroom UK and visiting professor at the Open University
  • Economy, Employment & Design
  • Mental health

Neil Thompson FRSA argues that when it comes to the current emphasis on employee wellness, it is important to make sure that any support services being invested in are not any part of a bandwagon that people with little of value to offer have jumped on.

Many years ago I was a member of a stress research group that was trying to put workplace wellbeing on the agenda. We needn’t have bothered because, quite soon thereafter, stress in the workplace became a big issue, and very quickly a burgeoning ‘stress industry’ developed. No doubt much of the help offered by this industry could prove useful and worthwhile, but there was also a lot of the modern equivalent of people selling snake oil.

While a pressing sense to get something done about workplace health and wellbeing is understandable in the current highly pressurised circumstances of the modern workplace, it is essential that concerned employers deploy tried and tested approaches anddo not rush in to engaging services that may not be all that they initially seem.

Workplace wellness issues are rightly being given a high priority these days, as rising effectively to the challenges involved can make such a positive difference in terms of morale and job satisfaction, engagement and productivity, sickness absence and staff turnover. However, it is vitally important to understand that these are very complex and sensitive issues, and it is easy to get them wrong if we are not properly tuned in to them.

With that in mind, what I am offering here is an overview of 10 pitfalls to avoid; 10 mistakes that are easy to make if the issues have not been carefully considered.

1. Skating on the surface

Sadly, simplistic and superficial approaches have proven to be very common. The danger here is that such efforts simply serve to alienate staff, to leave them feeling that their needs and interests have not been understood or taken fully into consideration. For example, dress-down Fridays may be fun, but will they make employees any more productive or give them greater job satisfaction?

2. Confusing health and wellbeing

Health and wellbeing are closely related, but they are not the same thing. Confusing the two can cause a lot of problems. It is therefore important to be clear about the differences. What makes us healthier will not necessarily make us happier and what makes us happier will not necessarily make us healthier. Often, the focus is on health and the more complex issues around wellbeing (defined as quality of life) are given less attention (or none at all).

3. Not having the necessary data

At one extreme, there are organisations that wisely invest in developing the necessary intelligence to make well-informed decisions around employee wellbeing. But, at the other extreme, there are organisations that launch into wellbeing initiatives without having given anything other than a very cursory consideration of the issues involved.

4. Not tackling the real issues

While healthy eating, exercise and good-quality sleep are all important, they are not the whole story. What about addressing the often quite complex and tricky challenges of stress, bullying and harassment, discrimination, unresolved conflicts, loss and grief and so on? Failing to address these can make any wellness initiatives seem tokenistic.

5. Trying to get the most out of people

This might initially seem a good idea, but, contrast it what sounds like a similar – but is in fact significantly different – notion of getting the best out of people. We can get the most out of people by pushing them to or beyond their limits, putting them under immense pressure in the process. This runs the risk of stress, ill-feeling and increased staff turnover. Getting the best out of people involves helping them achieve their full potential, making sure that they feel valued, supported and safe.

6. Missing out the spiritual dimension

There is, of course, a close association between spirituality and religion, but spirituality extends far beyond religion. Not everyone is religious, but we all have spiritual needs and face spiritual challenges, for example, in terms of finding meaning, purpose and direction in our lives. Consequently, if we are serious about getting optimal results, then we need to make sure that we are taking account of the spiritual dimension by ensuring that work is experienced as meaningful.

7. Not getting senior leadership buy in

Where the senior leadership team are not be ‘on board’, not necessarily because they are against the idea but perhaps because they are focusing on what they see as other priorities, real change – or real lasting change – becomes much less likely to occur. It is therefore essential that senior leaders are helped to understand that getting the people issues right needs to be a very high priority.

8. Not getting employee buy in

Effective employee wellbeing initiatives are, of course very much in the interests of the staff (and managers). However, if communication about what is happening and why it is happening in relation to workplace wellbeing is not handled effectively, members of staff can fail to appreciate the benefits of what is being done and may feel that they are being offered an empty gesture. They may see proposed changes as tokenistic or as ways of avoiding the ‘real issues’.

9. Not communicating effectively

People who are not given the information that they need will feel devalued and disrespected (the opposite of wellbeing). And, of course, the other side of communication is listening. People who do not feel listened to will also feel devalued and disrespected.

10. Not addressing culture

Organisational culture is a hugely powerful influence on people’s thoughts, feelings, actions and interactions. A key part of effective leadership is being able to shape the culture in a positive direction, and this applies just as much to health and wellbeing issues as it does to any other aspect of organisational life. Does your culture support or hinder what you are trying to do?

These are, of course, not the only pitfalls to avoid, but they should be sufficient to make it clear that the issues involved need to be given very careful consideration if significant – potentially very damaging – mistakes are to be avoided.


Dr Neil Thompson is a well-published author and highly respected educator and consultant. He is currently the Vice-President of Vigoroom UK, an extensive sophisticated wellness platform geared towards maximising employee engagement by helping employees to achieve optimal health and wellbeing outcomes (www.vigoroom.co.uk). 

He holds a higher doctorate (DLitt) in wellbeing. His latest book is People Skills (5th edn, Red Globe Press). His website is at www.NeilThompson.info.

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