top of page

Culture trumps everything, so where does a corporate wellness program fit in?

female exercising in light filled gym

I have been thinking about wellness programs over the past few weeks particularly as a few articles have started to pop up discussing them. Mental health at work is also rightly being widely discussed at the moment and incidents at tech giants such as Google and Uber have added fuel.

I read an article recently by a leading HR consultant whom I have known for a long time suggesting that a business is not responsible for the wellness of their employees in the context of don't spend money on building your own program. Of course aside from their legal and moral responsibility around ensuring a safe workplace.

When I first read the article it certainly gave me pause for thought and it took me a while to work out why I didn't agree with all of it. Then I realised that having a wellness program to me is not and never should be about the financial ROI for a business. While I agree with some of the findings, particularly about fixing culture first, the mental and physical health of your employees is more than just an economic factor, it is a human one.

So the question is do you the employer need to have a wellness program for your employees and where does that fit in around the culture piece. To me the answer is yes and actually having a great culture will invariably mean having a wellness program albeit in many cases informally.

A program does not need to have the physical presence that many people think of when conjuring up the idea of gyms and swimming pools, meditation and yoga studios. It is about investing in your employees as people and giving them the best possible chance to succeed. Small businesses and SME's can also have wellness programs built around culture.

Similarly the best physical wellness program on the planet will not make up for or mask the inefficiencies or inadequacies of a poor work culture.

While the article itself advocates wellness it suggests that as an employee you are responsible for your own physical and mental health and there is no real evidence that running a formal wellness program adds to the financial bottom line of a business and that having a happy employee does not necessarily equate to them being more productive , for you, the employer. That it is not the role of the employer to manage the employees wellness or even dictate to them how to manage their own wellness and finally it is better to fix the problems in your corporate culture and you will not need the wellness program in the first place. That by being more aware and responsive to what is happening in the workplace you can create a more functional, efficient and healthier place for your employees at no cost - hard to argue with any of that. Finally that as individuals and adults we should be responsible for our own mental, physical and spiritual wellness. Again a logical conclusion but I still felt that there is more to this than meets the eye - the human angle.

1. Is there a problem that you need to fix?

Rather than simply saying yes or no to any wellness programs perhaps consider the reasons behind it and what you are looking to offer your employees and what, if any, problem you are seeking to fix. That a wellness program is more than the sum of its parts and can also be offered in part. Clearly if you were to build a brand new factory on an industrial estate where the only choice was ubiquitous fast food chains you might decide that having your own canteen with a range of well priced nutritious food is a good idea to look after your employees health, boost productivity and reduce sickness.

Similarly if you have 1,000 or 5,000 employees on your site then you may decide that you need to offer more amenities such as staff canteens, a gym or doctor because with such a large workforce in one place your employees may not have access to these amenities in your vicinity or they may be very expensive. These things are part of their normal life and if you can provide faster (and cheaper) access to them then so much the better. You don't need to but it may just make sense.

As an entrepreneur and business consultant of course I understand the financial argument for ROI but as an employer of people I have always tried to offer my employees anything that adds value to their experience of working for me. It may cost me a few dollars in profit but I was pretty sure I had happier and more productive employees. To me as an employer I always feel that it does not matter whether someone wants to turn up at 8 and leave at 5 having taken 2 hours at the gym for lunch, or arrive at 11am and leave at 8pm, if that is what they need to do to perform at their best throughout the day and come back the next day hopefully rested and energised. Often they will work at home if they need to. I know they will go the extra mile for me as they are treated as an adult with flexibility and respect, and I have always tried to pay top dollar.

2. Don't always just rely on the data. Be Human.

Wellness is about us humans and sometimes we need to do what we feel is instinctively right for us - each business owner and leader will have a different view on what direction they take based on that. Cold hard cash is not the only way to analyse ROI.

Recently I consulted to a business unit of global law firm Allen & Overy where they have their own gym and wellness programs. It was evident that employees would book in and use their facilities whenever they could schedule it in around their working day. Not everyone will use this but it was there for those who want to. You might not use the gym but you may want to see a doctor or dentist.

There are certainly those cynics out there who believe that in the world of law firms and professional services where employees work long hours on a regular basis by having an onsite gym, subsidised canteen and doctor just keeps them closer to home where they can get back to work faster and be passively monitored. Why not just be grateful and say thanks for providing this, it is far easier. For those working at 8pm on a deal I am sure that being able to pop upstairs for a 15 minute break and to eat something healthy is adding value.

3. The moving parts of a wellness program.

A wellness program does not need to be the all singing all dancing luxury offered by many multi national businesses. The idea of a wellness program today conjures up for many people the idea of an onsite gym, access to doctors and dentists, mentoring and counselling, massage and other remedial therapeutic services, meditation, yoga, nutrition counselling. Whereas in fact a wellness program does not need any real physical presence in a business and for me the support offered around mental health is far more important. If you can offer the rest then fantastic. It is not about the economic aspects but about showing your employees that you are investing in them. That you are doing something that you do not need to do to get them through the door each day but something that you feel is right to do, that matters to you the business leader.

When broken down into its component parts a corporate wellness program can be made up of three elements of mind, body and spirit. (you can call them what you want).

  • Mentoring, meditation, counselling, doctors, psychologists would count as mind.

  • Physical activity, doctors, dentists, nutrition, and massage would count as body.

  • Meditation, yoga, also counting as spirit or whatever else you want to call it. It could well be argued that practices such as meditation and yoga could fall within all three but that is for another day.

The important part of the physical program does not mean that you need to have it onsite but that you enable your employees to go and exercise when they need to, to show that you support their physical health. Yes an employee needs to motivate themselves to do so but you can encourage them by giving them the flexibility to exercise. That means if you are working a straight 9-5 job then you probably don't have time in the day to do a class, but you could go for a walk at lunchtime and be able to leave on time to work out in the evening. The more that you extend their day in the morning and into the evening the more flexibility you need to provide to enable them to maintain physical wellbeing. That in itself is part of a wellness program albeit not a structured one with a physical presence.

4. Culture and wellness

So if the aim of your business in having a wellness program is to provide emotional and mental support to your employees, then hopefully you also understand that you need a workplace culture that breeds transparency and collaboration, then you do not need any physical presence at work just an understanding that all employees are offered mentoring and counselling whenever they need it.

This program does not need to always be formal just built into the corporate culture that everyone looks out for each other, that your managers, team leaders are trained to identify issues that people are facing earlier and also understanding whether the support requires an informal chat or needs to be from a professional. That employees understand that putting their hands up and saying 'help' will not be shunned but will be supported. To my mind that is a far more powerful and effective wellness program than a beautiful sparkling glass bottomed swimming pool - as much as I like them. If you have this in place already and want to build that pool then go ahead and do so but fix the culture first.

5. No wellness program will paper over the cracks of a poor culture

If your reason for a wellness program is that as a large corporation all of your competitors have them and you need to keep up then clearly you may need to take a much deeper look at your own culture and how you can improve it before you spend any money. It may welI be a step in the right direction but there are other challenges to face first.

One key point with which I agree entirely is that however much money, shiny offices, fruit bowls, L&D programs, mentoring, wellness programs, subsidised canteens and free beer that you throw at your employees it will not make a jot of difference to their overall 'happiness' or satisfaction if their values are not aligned with your business culture. Everyone expects to go to work to work and most people do work hard but if you treat them poorly, don't listen to them, bully them, don't let them feel like they can take their holidays, crush their creativity, micro-manage them, don't invest in them personally, treat them like children and not free thinking adults then they will still walk out of the door and when they do they will not be telling their friends about you in a positive way.

"The best mentoring programs on the planet make no difference if the inherent business culture and behaviour of the leadership is not congruent with employee values or perhaps just basic human values"

5. "Leave your personal problems at home".

I have heard, over the 25+ years of my career, so many people and businesses advocating the neanderthal working practice of leaving your personal problems at the door of the office and that you are here to work, "I don't want to listen to your private life and it has no place in your job". I think we have all heard that at one stage or another whether about you personally or a manager saying it to your colleague or friend, or your friends sharing that work experience with you.

Yes it is true that at work we are there to focus on whatever task we have to do that and thinking about things outside of work is a distraction and that if we bring everything into work with us that we will probably not be very productive. That is just a fact of someone paying you to do something for them and expecting you to complete that assignment well and on time.

However, as humans our lives exist around a 24 hour cycle and not just the waking ours we spend at work, it is not possible to leave everything at the door. I certainly do not believe in wearing different masks for different tasks, the one for your family, your friends, your acquaintances, colleagues and clients. You are just the same person but perhaps using different skills, your character does not need to change. That again is for another article. The point being that our entire experience of life inside and outside of work affects how we behave on a daily basis.

When an employer asks an external coach to run an intervention with an employee you can never be sure what will turn up and it is just as likely that the underlying problems will exist outside of work than within it. I still count that as a wellness program and a business offering support to an employee. Now of course that can go further and the employee may well leave or get the support they need and perform efficiently again with renewed vigour and purpose. If you don't intervene then you run the risk of losing the employee and everyone around watching closely and seeing that no support was offered.

6. The cost and benefits

Of course not all of these programs are offered for free and there is often a cost to the employee especially for therapeutic services such as massage, the gym may also only be subsidised and not free. Many organisations have began to offer formal wellness programs and especially the larger ones where they are able to afford to do so as it can be an expensive exercise to allocate space and hire/train staff. These are often run by external contractors and consultants who are brought in to devise the programs around each business. Yes there can be a significant cost to running one of the programs and it may well be that the total cost outweighs the total increased productivity from an economic standpoint.

I was excited when international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills trialled a mindfulness program with the Potential Project and was impressed by their willingness to enter into a new territory and one which focussed on increased productivity, stress reduction, clarity of thought, performance, creativity and resilience. By learning to meditate for a few minutes each day we are able to re-train the mind into stopping and reversing negative thoughts and behavioural patterns, to calm an over stimulated mind which is constantly distracted by all of the white noise and circus around us. I meditate and it certainly works for me but that is just me.

From what I understand their program had some success:

45% increase in focus

35% increase in effectiveness

35% reduction in stress

If you can increase focus and effectiveness in an organisation where money is billed by time then that must surely increase revenue.

7. Culture may not make any economic difference but it is far more human to be kind.

I was talking to a global managing partner at one of the big consulting houses last year and we were discussing about how much impact leadership has on the bottom line. We are discussing this in the context of creating social impact, perhaps an analogy could be comparing the share price of Uber and Tesla/Space X, two companies with very different leadership styles and both major tech disruptors. This conversation was before Uber's latest problems and he suggested that there there was still no real market wide evidence to suggest that the dictatorial macho style of leadership produces any worse financial results compared to a philanthropic and socially conscious leader. That for all the talk of social impact and creating 'good' it rarely made any difference. Sure share prices may tank for a few days or weeks but unless the issue is business critical/terminal they always recover.

For me I just think of the amount of time and energy invested to keep the train on the tracks which could be better used to grow the business and give your employees a far better experience.

So why is this relevant to our discussion. Well imagine this scenario below and since we have been on the subject of law firms lets stick with them for now.

8. Culture always trumps beauty.

Imagine that you are looking for a new job and have offers from two world class law firms both in your chosen field of practise, autonomy and quality of work is the same, partnership track is good, the money is equal, training & development is the same, pretty much everything is equal.

Firm A has a wellness program and a beautiful new building with a glass bottomed swimming pool, great cafes and bars, access to doctors, dry cleaning and a host of wow factors to make your working life as easy as possible. Everyone you met was great but a little impersonal and you were not completely sold on the support they would offer you.

Firm B has a smaller gym in a slightly older building, still very modern, with good cafes, it is a little tired compared to the shining glass and steel of firm A. They rolled out the red carpet for you and everyone you met was really engaging, sure they work long hours but they seemed to look after each other, collaborate and were committed to supporting you each and every day. This was borne out by conversations that you had with others. They just decided not to move into new offices but to keep theirs.

Both firms would provide a great career. I know which one I would join but you decide for yourself. (Firm B). If everything else is equal, and sometimes even if it isn't then culture always wins - for me.

9. Invest in your people.

Yes as individuals we have a responsibility to look after ourselves, to eat well, to exercise, to sleep, to take a break and recharge. No matter how good your wellness program is then if someone does not want to engage with it they wont, but offering the support for people who do want to change and help themselves is a fantastic thing to be able to do for those whom you spend more waking time with you, their employer, then with their own families.

So get the culture right first and it may be that a wellness program or something along those lines is part of your overhaul of your leadership style and embracing a more human, collaborative culture and environment.

If you already have that culture in place and you want to offer something more to add to the experience of your employees then go for it, do as much as you can because you can and you want to.

As an employer myself I know very well that what people/humans/employees want is respect, dignity, to be treated fairly, to be listened to, to be supported and to be encouraged, to be stimulated, stretched and challenged. They may still leave when they feel a change is due but for the most part they will be loyal and productive, be positive at work.

Above all invest in your people as humans and give them the best possible chance to succeed.

Ed Andrew is the founder of the Human Consultancy which helps lawyers and other professionals navigate and manage their careers. A former barrister, he has worked in and founded businesses in London, Sydney, Delhi and Bali in industries such as recruitment, technology, fashion & e-commerce. He also consults to a wide range of businesses.


bottom of page