It seems that the HR world has just discovered ‘wellness’ as something it should worry about. There are conferences, seminars and articles on the topic and then many people offering services too support the health of the workforce. Look behind the veneer and all is not well.

The reason for this is that organisations are experiencing increasing absentees due to stressed out employees. Stress has been described as the ‘Health Epidemic of the 21st Century’ by the World Health Organization and its effect on our emotional and physical health can be devastating. In a recent USA study, over 50% of individuals felt that stress negatively impacted work productivity. According to a CIPD survey in the UK, 38% of employees are under excessive pressure at least once a week and almost a third say they come home exhausted either often or always. Increased levels of job stress have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension, obesity, addiction, anxiety, depression and other disorders.

Where is all this stress coming from? So far, technology has not brought the life of leisure. We have more stress and longer working hours than ever before. The developments in technology have outstripped our ability to adjust. Can we blame the technology and tell people to switch it off? Some organisations have tried this, with limited success, but this is just putting a sticking-plaster over the problem.  The solution lies deeper within the business and it’s something that has to be addressed at senior management levels. We have created organisational cultures that encourage stressful work patterns. Someone seen to be working extended hours is described as ‘dedicated’ and ‘loyal’. The ‘hard-working’ employee is praised. Consequently, we have cultures that subtly reward long hours. Replying to emails within a few hours, regardless of the time of day, is seen to be good behavior. Staying in touch over the weekend or on vacation is good for promotion.

We need to rethink the design of work so it is not deliberately contributing to poor health. This is no longer an issue for the HR department, it is a matter of leadership strategy. If the culture of the organization is to value the wellbeing of workforce, it has to be backed up with policies and examples from the highest level. Just offering subsidized gym membership and healthy food options in the staff restaurant is not enough. Providing training on wellbeing is not very helpful if the leaders are clearly not following their own guidance. Offering employee counselling services for stressed staff is attempting to control the symptoms and avoiding the cause.

Is your organisation taking this seriously, or are you just introducing a “wellness” programme to paper over there cracks?