Business of Well-being

Is your Wellness Program Inclusive? Laura Putnam, Author of “Workplace Wellness that Works” Talks Inclusion in Wellness

Inclusive Benefits

Diversity and inclusion are buzzwords these days and many employers throw these words around quickly without reflecting on what they represent. While it is easy to force diversity on your organization for the sake of it, inclusion is a different ball game that requires a lot of work and a shift in organizational culture. 

The concept of inclusive wellness is seminal to building a successful wellness program. Employees are unlikely to engage in wellness initiatives if they do not feel included or the program does not consider their individual differences. 

In a recent episode of the Edelheit Experience, Jonathan Edelheit sits with Laura Putnam to discuss the value of inclusion in an organization and its crucial role in employee wellness.  Laura Putnam is a founder and the CEO of Motion Infusion. She is also the author of “Wellness that Works,” a book that shares a fresh perspective on workplace wellness. 

Well-being has become the order of the day in corporate circles; employees are now very concerned about their mental, physical, and emotional health, and employers have a lot of work to do to provide for these needs in the best possible way. 

“The pandemic has cracked all of us wide open, coupled with the murder of George Floyd, and we are now being honest with ourselves and more aware about wellbeing and inclusivity,” Laura says. I’ll call it the Great Renegotiation; employees are now in the driver seat, calling the shots more than they ever did in the past, and employers are now being forced to pay attention to what really matters most to employees - wellbeing.”

However, there’s a fundamental problem that has plagued corporate wellness programs for ages and has contributed to their failure. When employers treat all employees as the same and provide them with the same set of wellness offerings, the programs will yield sub-par outcomes. 

"We have not paid enough attention to those external factors that relate to the world of DE&I, things like gender, race, age, and religion, that really shape our capacity as individuals to be able to make the healthy choice," Laura says. “What wellness looks to each of us is different; so everyone gets to choose what their best self looks like for them” 

Laura describes this barrier as “wellness privilege,” where employers presume that employees already have more than the bare minimum social or other determinants of health. Blanket wellness advice such as spending more time close to nature to factor out the different access employees have to these health determinants. 

Employees may be at more risk of chronic disease because of where they live, their level of education, working life conditions, childhood development, or the presence of social inclusion or discrimination. These social determinants of health, or “currents” as Laura calls them influence our health risks significantly, and without factoring these into the wellness program design, employers are literally wasting their time.

Employers need to sit down and ask these vital questions: what are those individual factors that make employee A at more risk of a health condition than employee B? Instead of offering yoga classes or a meditation room to improve mental wellbeing, is employee A battling depression and anxiety because they are being discriminated against for their sexual orientation or religious views? A million yoga sessions a day is unlikely to help that employee. 

Is an employee’s income level a significant barrier to how healthy they are? Does it influence where they live, how healthy their nutrition is, or what financial burden they face? These “currents” are the true determinants of health that well-being initiatives should be all about. 

The first step to incorporating inclusion into wellness is starting from the top. It would be ridiculous to want to drive inclusivity in wellness programs when your corporate culture does not reflect inclusivity. Putting up that facade will only drown employee engagement further. 

It's easy to tell your employees to change their health habits, adopt healthier diet options and so on, but at the same time employers neglect how significant work influences health  and factors within the workplace that are driving negative health outcomes.

“The question is your organizational culture in which wellbeing is fundamentally supported or undermined? Laura says.

Where’s the inclusion in inviting BIPOC into an organization dominated by a white-led executive team? How inclusive will members of the LGBTQIA community feel when they are not represented in the decision-making team of the organization? Do your wellness offerings and events cater to members of other religions or is it a wellness package that reflects the subtle religious bias of your organization?

Your wellness plan will often factor out these social differences if they are not well represented in your high-level executive team. What this ultimately creates are wellness offerings that are unused, irrelevant, and ineffective. The less engaged employees are with workplace wellness, the more unhealthy they become, and this problem more often than not begins from the top. 

"Whether or not well-being is part of a manager's job description, the manager has everything to do with the extent to which their team members are well or not,” Laura notes. “A study done in the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden found that if I am an employee, my boss matters to my health more than my doctor; a negative or toxic boss increases my risk of having a heart attack 10 years later. So when some employees joke about their bosses killing them, they do mean it.”

Driving inclusion from the top helps to foster accountability, which ultimately trickles down to your wellness programs. Building this corporate culture helps to redefine what your organization stands for and this, in turn, underlies your policies, procedures, and policies to accommodate the diversity in your workplace. 

When employers take these nuances into consideration, they’ll realize that wellness is not a standalone concept, but in the very fabric of employees’ day-to-day operations. It would be easy to create gender-neutral training facilities, for example, or facilities accessible for wheelchair-bound employees or ensure that a sign language interpreter is present in conferences and workplace events to ensure everyone feels included. 

Inclusive wellness takes a lot of work. It is beyond employing people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations; it is more about providing an environment that accommodates their differences and building a culture that supports each of them. Without rethinking this fundamental framework, employers may find it difficult to create inclusion in wellness or drive the desired level of employee engagement with wellness programs.

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