Lightening Up Workplace Wellness Programs

In my last blog post, I discussed why workplace wellness programs that focus too much on weight can be counterproductive. In fact, any program that is heavy-handed in forcing change is liable to backfire. Happily, more and more companies get it. They are turning to creative ways that integrate physical health with mental and emotional well being, community involvement, and a greener planet. It is akin to a school instilling a lifelong love of learning in its students vs. an institution that only teaches its pupils how to be more proficient at taking tests. Here are three areas to start with:

Eat Your Veggies

According to the CDC, only one in 10 adults is getting the federally recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. That is a shame, because not only does their consumption reduce the risk of disease, Australian researchers have found that eating them was associated with increased life satisfaction.

What to do with all those holdouts who resist Mother Nature’s bounty? There is an activity that has the potential to encourage even the most green-phobic folks to make peace with broccoli. It is called gardening! Studies have found that gardening increases produce consumption in both school children and older adults. Can those in the middle really be that different?

In The New Corporate Wellness Programs: On-Site Gardens, Judith Nemes cites evidence that gardens just might be the new gyms. Their benefits are many:

  • Access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Alternative form of exercise for breaks and lunch.
  • Creative expression when employees use the results of their labor in potlucks and recipe exchanges.
  • Cultural inclusion when care is taken to make sure these events include dishes from many traditions.
  • Better mental health. Microbes in soil have natural anti-depressant qualities.
  • Fun for the whole family. Throw in some black and white carrots or purple cauliflower to catch the kids’ interest and teach them about biodiversity at the same time.

Don’t have room for a garden at your workplace? Options include rooftop gardens, greenhouses, and renting plots in community gardens. There are all kinds of new contraptions for indoor gardens too. If those are still not practical, encourage people to garden at home and report their progress online. Almost anyone can grow tomatoes on their patio or a few herbs in their kitchen.

An Exercise in Altruism

Exercise is already a critical part of most wellness programs. But often, all those get moving promotions and contests draw the most physically fit to begin with. Meanwhile, the rest of us are taken back to our nerdy days in gym class.

As with vegetable consumption, perhaps one solution lies in the bigger picture. No one needs a PhD in psychology to figure out that purpose is an intrinsic part of motivation. Is exercise that serves a higher good the answer, at least for some people? Gyms that generate clean electricity, plogging, or biking to work. Or volunteer opportunities that provide plenty of incidental exercise in the course of performing them, like walking shelter pets, community cleanups, or neighborhood watch patrols.

This idea will probably not work for the most movement resistant of folks. Still, encouraging altruistic acts (which BTW,  have health benefits independent of exercise) may just attract some people who would otherwise groan at the idea of jogging or jumping jacks.

Pleasant Dreams

Americans are sleep deprived which can lead to a multitude of health problems including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. It also makes employees less productive. To combat this, some companies offer places where naps can be taken at the office. Flex hours are another possibility.

It is unlikely we will ever see corporate-sponsored contests where who can sleep the longest replace who can take the most steps. (Finally, an event I could win.) Yet, there are many creative ways to encourage people to get their Zsss.  It ranges from advice on how to take restorative naps, to dream journal blogging, to passing out lavender and chamomile tea packets.

The Coming Change in Workplace Wellness Programs

There is a growing backlash against workplace wellness programs that are too invasive, treat employees like children who need supervision, or feel like a burden. Many view penalizing those who are in poorer health as heartless.

As a result of a lawsuit from the AARP, a  federal district court ruled last December that companies can no longer charge employees who do not want to participate in wellness questionnaires and exams more for their premiums. Every article I have read contains debate on exactly what this will mean. The best suggestion for employers is to be aware of the ruling and consult your own legal counsel or open yourself up to lawsuits.

Beyond the legalities, health should be about joy and embracing life. Otherwise, the cure truly is worse than the disease.  As Joseph Addison said, “Cheerfulness is the best promoter of health and is as friendly to the mind as to the body.”

Further Reading

Is laughter really the best medicine?  Track down a hard copy of Feeling Good is Good for You: How Pleasure Can Boost Your Immune System and Lengthen Your Life for enjoyable ways to incorporate fun into your workplace wellness programs.

Sherie Sanders is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Kaitlin Moller

This piece provided some excellent ideas I have never thought of. Gardening is a great way to keep healthy as well as volunteer programs to keep moving and ultimately maintain a healthy workplace culture through teamwork, which then improves mental health!

Avatar photo Blake Martin

Seconding Kaitlin, the gardening concept for a workplace is a wonderful idea, such that I’m surprised I haven’t heard of this before! What a great project for folks to rally around and work together on, not to mention the bonus health/wellness benefits. Loved your closing quote about cheerfulness – laughter seems to make almost anything feel better 🙂

Jana Choi

Modern approaches to wellness programs are so important. I’m really drawn to the idea of company gardens which can be a source of community building and a place to educate about health and encourage people to eat more produce.