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Is it time to redefine wellness in the workplace?

Visit any number of tech, advertising or consulting companies at lunchtime and you’ll witness the impact of the wellness movement on work life: conference rooms are reserved for mindfulness, quinoa reigns on cafeteria menus, and dogs—those lovable and emotionally supportive animals—abound.

Given the wide-ranging influence of today’s Millennial workforce, it’s not surprising that the wellness craze they’ve helped create has seeped into office culture. Companies intent on wooing and keeping talented employees entice them with everything from well-stocked juice bars to free yoga classes. The message employers telegraph via these wellness perks is clear: We care about your health and happiness.

It’s a sentiment that seems hard to argue with, but there’s just one problem: the jury’s still out on whether these measures really add up to healthier, happier employees.

Many workplace wellness programs don’t work

It makes sense why employers would be in the business of peddling wellness. By almost all accounts, being a professional these days is unprecedentedly stressful. Savvy employers look for ways to keep employees from burning out and taking off. Enter lunchtime spin classes and team day meditation training. From a company’s perspective, being wellness-friendly is a win-win: Either your employees are already into self-care, in which case you get props for supporting them, or they aren’t, in which case you can set a good example (and cut down on health insurance premiums).

In practice, workplace policies around health and wellness may not be all they’re cracked up to be. Locked in a competitive sprint for customers and market share, many companies send mixed messages about work-life balance. Given a corporate culture that demands 24/7 availability, company-sponsored forays into wellness may come across as a bit tone deaf. After all, what good are all-day team-building offsites to learn how to roll sushi if they result in all-nighters to make up the work?

What good are all-day team-building offsites to learn how to roll sushi if they result in all-nighters to make up the work?

In addition to promoting “squishier” wellness practices like mindfulness and visualization, employers today may encourage healthy eating and exercise via more formal programs. And yet, research has shown that official programs designed to improve overall health and cut down on employers’ medical expenses have little effect. This is in part due to the reality that employers rarely succeed in motivating employees to do things in the name of wellness that they weren’t already inclined to do.

[Also read: Millennials, control your own work-life integration]

A recent study of workplace wellness programs by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that “wellness programs—even those with incentives—don’t change employees’ behavior much.” Another bubble-bursting outcome? “Surveys the researchers offered enrollees also found that wellness had no impact on job satisfaction or productivity.”

Take a breath … or a hard look at company culture

One big problem with employers supporting wellness programs for employees is the one-size-fits-all aspect. Not everyone finds yoga relaxing or grain salads satisfying. Assigning a value to certain activities over others may not sit well with some employees and can alienate those who feel pressured to engage. Then, too, employees may bristle at recommendations for how best to combat stress when what they really need is another team member or more resources and time to complete a critical project.

A cynical take on employer-mandated wellness is that once a company offers chair massages and yoga classes at lunch, any residual stress rests on the shoulders of the employee. Promoting wellness feels to some observers like a box employers check without taking full responsibility for the stress-inducing aspects of company culture that truly need attention. Instead, the onus falls on employees to take advantage of what’s offered and then…be less stressed. Which, as anyone who’s ever worked for a nightmare boss or lived through a rocky product launch will tell you, is just plain crazy talk.

[Also read: With work-life fit, does one size fit all?]

–physical, emotional, and social well-being. Which is why one key may be to examine your employees’ work life and cut back on stressors. Providing adequate support staff, encouraging autonomy and flexibility, and tending to career development are concrete steps a company can take to truly promote employee satisfaction and wellness.

In that vein, if you care about the health and well-being of your employees, training your management team might be a better investment than monthly yoga in the conference room. Research indicates that “Employees of bad managers are at greater risk for high blood pressure, chronic stress, sleep problems, anxiety, substance abuse issues, overeating, heart attacks and other health problems.” According to Jonathan D. Quick, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the book Preventive Stress Management in Organizations, “The evidence is clear that the leadership qualities of ‘bad’ bosses over time exert a heavy toll on employees’ health.”

Providing adequate support staff, encouraging autonomy and flexibility, and tending to career development are concrete steps a company can take to truly promote employee satisfaction and wellness.

Social support is high on the hierarchy of needs

Another aspect of work life that contributes to wellness that you can’t stock in the staff kitchen? Good work relationships. In a panel discussion on employee wellness, Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, observed, “Yes, we have to work on people’s physical health and their psychological well-being. But at the same time, if we don’t improve people’s relationships at work, we’re putting Band-Aids on hemorrhages.”

According to Susan Steinbrecher, CEO of Steinbrecher and Associates, a leadership training and executive coaching firm, “Social support can be defined as proactive communication, care and understanding. Workers with low levels of support from family, friends, colleagues and mentors are particularly at risk for productivity loss and health problems. Start a mentorship program that will allow employees to work with leadership on their managerial skills and initiate team-based activities that encourage camaraderie.” Spending time on hobbies has also been shown to reduce stress, as has volunteering.

[Also read: Volunteering your skill set can have some surprising benefits]

Another study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology reveals that employees who are regularly engaged in some type of creative hobby may boost their performance on the job. But employers who really want to encourage healthy habits in employees should encourage hobbies for other reasons, having nothing to do with potential job benefits. It feels good to follow your bliss outside of work—hobbies offer a chance to be creative and succeed—even if one’s workday is filled with challenges. And lots of hobbies increase social connection, too.

[Also read: The art of messing up and making things]

Choose your own leisure time

For companies confused about where to start with respect to wellness at work, here’s a hint: As in, fewer standing meetings on their calendar and more hours of PTO. According to a study on the effects of leisure time on happiness published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, “Leisure had a consistent effect; when people reported engaging in leisure, they reported more happiness…trended toward less sadness…more interest…less stress…and lower heart rate…than when those same people reported that they were not engaging in leisure.”

When it comes to our personal health and wellness, we all have different baggage and needs. Given this, are employers really in a position to help? Or should they provide more flexibility and free time and let each of us choose what works best for us? A solo walk in the woods, an afternoon playing with our child, or training for a 10k run? Which option spells “wellness” for you?