Autonomy and Companionate Love: Do we need a revolution in employee wellness offerings?

Thirty years ago, during the budding era of worksite health promotion, wellness offerings were primarily an executive perk. Convenient physical exams, individual coaching and healthy foods served at the executive lounge were a sign of status afforded to only a few. Today, medical, dental and vision coverage are the starting point to compete for talent. Increasingly, free health coaching, on-site biometric screenings, meditation rooms and fitness campaigns using company sponsored wearable devices are commonplace for organizations committed to a healthy workplace. In regions where brain power is coveted most, on-site healthy food is also gratis; nutritionists stand ready to offer consultations and a chef prepares your custom lunch order.

While wellness programs may once have been a reward for the privileged few, getting all employees engaged in well-being initiatives has become a fundamental strategy to bolster business success. Now, measuring the health and productivity of the workplace occurs from the C-Suite to the shop floor. Many companies even offer substantial financial incentives for participating in wellness activities. Why? Because research has shown companies that foster a culture of health enjoy three-fold greater returns in shareholder value than their competitors.

That wellness offerings have become an arms race of increasingly generous benefits for employees is a relatively recent development considering the evolution of worksite health, safety and well-being programs. For decades, the success of employee health promotions was tied to population-level health risk reduction, health care cost containment and — for bold companies — a financial return on investment. It is not unreasonable to speculate that a full employment economy has shifted some of the attention from the costs of health risks to the business imperative of attracting and retaining talent. In a weak economy when employers strive for a lean workforce and when health care costs are a major drag on profitability, focusing on improving employee health to boost productivity and reduce costs is understandable. But in a strong economy, where talent is in short supply, focusing on how the work is organized and how the workplace affects employee job satisfaction and retention makes equal sense.

From convenience to caring

Successful health and well-being initiatives will likely remain entrenched in the relationship between health and productivity, but they are increasingly being measured against factors like employee happiness, engagement and performance. Experts who study worksite wellness also add environmental and personal support variables, workflow issues and plenty of fun factors to their analysis of corporate success and sustainability. Of the innovative factors currently being tested, leading employers will ask which factors make it easy for employees to keep working versus those that build a culture that compels employees to love their work, or even their workplace.

Not that long ago, offering free donuts and coffee in the morning and free pizza in the evenings was a time-honored strategy in some sectors for “keeping butts in chairs.” To be sure, some organizations with over-the-top perks for employees today can still be suspect of spending money on conveniences that pass the return-on-investment test because employees have fewer reasons to leave the office. On-site clinics, laundry service, car washes, daycare facilities and “work-life” centers are wonderful benefits that, coincidentally, make work an easier place to spend more of one’s life. Add to this on-site dining offerings that are color-coded for health, walking paths, on-site massage and e-triggers to take mindfulness moments, and the allure of the office increasingly beats the foibles of life outside.

Many consider this shift from a focus on physical health and productivity to mental and emotional well-being and human performance to be a “movement from wellness to well-being.” Companies that embrace well-being are interested in supporting “flow”, that elusive quality where you are so mentally in sync with your activities that you lose a sense of time. Your favorite avocation is usually a place where you regularly enjoy flow and, if you’re one of the lucky few, you similarly experience flow at work. I get lost in time when I’m rowing and, gladly, time also regularly escapes me at work. What the two activities share in common relates to my autonomous decision making about how and when I do them.

Assuming the most positive of intentions, the employee benefits arms race fits well under a principle of reciprocity. Based on well-researched scales that measure employee’s “perceived organizational support,” it has been well established that when employers go above and beyond what is expected in support of employees, their employees offer exceptional efforts in turn. I expect research will continue to show that the best predictors of employee loyalty and retention will have more to do with caring than convenience. But, I anticipate we will also find that a culture of caring means much more than “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” After all, what of the above perks will remain commonplace after the current flush economic cycle? I’d venture that loss of some of these perks of convenience will not matter much if employers embrace the aspects of employee well-being that relate more closely to compassionate support and autonomous decision making about the what, how and when of the work itself.

From reciprocity to autonomy

Among romantics it is said that if I truly love you, I must we willing to set you free. If the movement from wellness to well-being is to achieve full-throttled momentum, more companies will embrace a psychologically healthy workplace that includes love and gratitude and, particularly, employee autonomy. The concept that “companionate love” in the workplace offers competitive advantages is making the pages of business journals, as is the value of giving employees more opportunities to contribute to their communities.

Similarly, more studies of the new and emerging workforce show millennials are purpose driven and want latitude in co-designing jobs that fuel their passions. Others argue that offering flexible hours, remote work options and honor system, even unlimited, vacation time are the surest ways to attract the top talent.

To strike the optimal balance between paternalism and autonomy and between kindness and accountability, employers must continue to experiment with programs and options that deliver a great employee experience (and ultimately, a great customer experience). We also need to learn more about reducing employee disease risks while strengthening employee health assets. Executive leaders must ask how they can satisfy the C-Suite, while co-creating employee-centered health and well-being initiatives that soar in popularity and impact.

There is no question that health improvement has always required interconnectivity between the organization and its sub-groups and individuals. But here’s the big audacious challenge: health risks and related costs have not abated and the pathways between well-being and business performance are still being forged in both science and practice. What researchers describe as “socio-ecological models for health” have shown that the influence of the built environment, families and communities are vitally linked. In short, it is not about the perks anymore. We need to elevate the conversation about worksite health promotion by bringing disciplined reflection about love and autonomy alongside our learnings to date about health and performance.

For an article on “What does it mean to have a healthy workplace culture” by my colleagues Emily Wolfe from HERO and Kathy Meacam Webb from Limeade go to “Media Planet.” For the full worksite wellness issue on the Future of Tech in Business go to the Employee Engagement Articles in “Media Planet.”

Paul E. Terry, Ph.D. is President and CEO of the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

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