Is “Workplace Wellness” a Lie?

I have a friend who works at a company where complimentary yoga classes are provided in the middle of the workday, and she finds this a great benefit. She believes it helps her both physically and psychologically.

I can’t argue with her self-assessment, but there is new evidence that, if it is effective for her, she’s an exception to the rule. A new study, reported on by Megan McArdle in The Washington Post, casts doubt on the efficacy of workplace wellness programs.

“Thirty-nine wellness-related outcomes were measured, from sick days to health-care spending. The researchers found no significant effect in 37 of the 39 outcomes. The two variables that showed ‘significance’ weren’t actually all that significant: One was ‘an increase in the number of employees who ever received a health screening,’ the paper reports, and the other ‘an increase in the number who believe that management places a priority on health and safety,’” McArdle writes.

The most meaningful workplace wellness, I’ve long felt, has nothing to do with gyms or special programs, but, rather, walking. If you can walk to work (which, I realize, the majority of people can’t), do it. My office is about a 40-minute walk from my apartment in New York City. I take the subway to the office in the morning, but I walk home at night. We’re moving to a new office, closer to my apartment, in the fall, so when that happens, I’ll be walking in both directions.

If you’re not one of the lucky few who can walk to work, incorporate it into your workday. Rather than spending money on programming, a company can give incentives for work groups to take walking meetings. You leave the office as a group, and walk around the company campus or nearby city streets. If your office’s interior is large, you might even be able to do a couple big loops walking around the inside of your building. Another idea is to meet at a high school track or park first thing in the morning for a walking meeting. Ambitious, well-funded companies can even have their own indoor walking track built within the office or in an adjacent building. The company that just acquired my company has three baristas working at complimentary coffee bars inside one office building, so is a walking track so unrealistic?

The incentive for conducting walking meetings can be an extra day off for everyone in the work group, a group gift card for a nice lunch sponsored by the company, or even airline miles added to the frequent flyer programs of all employees in the work group.

Offices also can be organized in a way that requires employees to incorporate walking into their days. For example, you could have entrances and exits that are a walk to the working area, and can deliberately space apart co-workers and managers—just far enough to require a five-minute walk—when face-to-face interactions are required. Five minutes of walking, multiplied several times throughout the day, adds up.

To keep the offices friendly for those who are unable to walk for any reason, you could have limited-access entrances and exits, available only to those with special magnetic swipe cards—those who can demonstrate, by doctor’s note, or more obvious signs, like being in a wheelchair, that they are unable to walk.

Another way to make a healthier company is to research what your state allows in restricting smoking during the workday. Would it be legal to prohibit smoking entirely outside your office, on land your company owns? What if your company doesn’t own the land, can you restrict smoking then? Not being able to smoke for nine, or more, hours a day might help a smoker begin the process of quitting.

If you’re not legally permitted to prohibit smoking outside your office, can you prohibit smoking breaks? If you can’t prohibit them, can you send a message that it’s culturally frowned on?

Interestingly, one wellness measure that has been counterproductive for me has been the elimination of vending machines. The landlord of the office where my company currently is based doesn’t allow vending machines for security reasons (presumably due to the inability to do security screenings for delivery people who need to frequently service the machines), but I imagine some also believe there might be a wellness advantage in not having vending machines. I’ve found it difficult not having a small-portion snack, whether salty or sweet, at hand, and instead, once in a while, find myself leaving the office for a portion size larger, and more indulgent, than I would have found in a vending machine. Case in point: A late afternoon carb-meltdown a couple weeks ago sent me hightailing it to a deli next door for a slice of German chocolate cake with pineapple and coconut filling.

Wellness is a long-term endeavor, with many setbacks, even for those of us who try to be conscious of it. Is there a way to separate the looks-good-wellness-window-dressing from the meaningful actions?

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