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Trust: The Real Corporate Wellness Initiative

Instead of being a commodity, a healthy work culture should be built directly into the corporate DNA

Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 12:03

The global wellness industry is doing superbly, thank you very much. In recent years, it grew a healthy 12.8 percent, becoming a $4.2 trillion market. Whether the lives of wellness consumers are improving at a comparable rate is another matter altogether.

Wellness products and services run the gamut, from vitamins and juice cleanses to upscale wellness studios and spas. At the very end of the spectrum, there are tours positioned as healing and spiritual journeys to the Amazon, where people go in search of psychedelic, hallucinatory insights through sampling ayahuasca, a traditional plant medicine, under the guidance of indigenous or self-styled shamans.

Part of this trend, the business of workplace wellness, is also thriving. Large corporations such as Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Intuit, and SAP have dedicated wellness programs. Earlier this year, Apple launched medical clinics to serve the needs of its staff. As one tech publication noted, these clinics’ websites show happy people standing around a fire on the beach, not “a bunch of fat, middle-aged nerds hunched over their desks eating soggy sandwiches.”

Wellness as a commodity

The wellness industry insists that its offerings are making people feel much happier and healthier, that it is the route to a better life. But given all the hype—and especially the fact that companies now invest nearly $50 billion a year to create wellness experiences for their employees—we should step back and ask ourselves: Do these wellness cures make a tangible difference, or are they a passing fad?

Are we really doing ourselves a favor pursuing mindfulness training in the evening while continuing to endure constant daily stress at work? When we spend money on “detoxifying” treatments, crystal readings, and expensive retreats, is it possible that we are being taken for a gigantic ride?  

It makes sense to strive for well-being and a “healthier” lifestyle, be it at home or at work. However, true wellness should be seen as a state of mind. We should not feel compelled to pursue it in the form of external and oftentimes unfounded magical cures.

Living a positive and healthy lifestyle should be a given, rather than something packaged and forced-fed to us as a product we need to purchase, experience, and consume. And that also concerns the workplace. When hard-driving corporations with Darwinian cultures institute wellness programs, is their real goal to change employees’ lives, or do these programs more often serve as a way to prevent overworked individuals from completely burning out? In companies where people experience real wellness, it has always been part of the corporate DNA and not just a fad.

The true enablers of wellness in the workplace

The litmus test of a great place to work is when employees can enthusiastically recommend it to their friends and family members. That’s a clear sign that the organization has its employees’ wellness at heart. Unfortunately, based on our own experience, very few companies pass this wellness test.

Organizations that truly enable wellness have flat, organic structures that make it easy to share information, ideas, and feelings between people at the same level. Communication also flows freely between managers and subordinates, such that the latter feel heard and empowered. Moreover, such places of work provide a true learning environment: knowledge management is not an empty slogan. Flexible work arrangements are a reality, giving people greater control of their personal and professional lives.

For wellness to flourish in an organization, the first step is to create a climate of trust. Trust implies that people treat each other with mutual respect, behave with integrity, and that a fair process is a given. Unfortunately, too many organizations are permeated by fear and paranoia. When this happens, creativity is left by the wayside—and so is wellness.

When a coaching orientation becomes part of the organization’s DNA, wellness follows. Over and over again, we have found in our work that team coaching is very effective in breaking down silos, and that it serves as a buffer against scapegoating. In addition, a coaching culture encourages people to share knowledge because it makes them feel more connected. After all, if your colleagues are strangers, why would you bother to share what you know with them? All kinds of teams stand to benefit, especially matrix and virtual ones. Last but not least, having a coaching culture helps to get things done.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should throw wellness programs out the window. However, as a standalone agenda, wellness devoid of the other essential ingredients, such as trust and a coaching culture, will just turn into yet another management fad. The world is already full of imagined quick-fix “solutions.” Executives should realize that if the basics are not in place, their expensive wellness programs will just be a waste of money.

First published Dec. 10, 2018, on the INSEAD Knowledge blog.


About The Authors

Manfred Kets de Vries’s picture

Manfred Kets de Vries

Manfred Kets de Vries is a clinical professor of leadership and organizational change; an author, co-author, and editor of 35 books; and a consultant and educator on organizational design/transformation and strategic human resource in more than 40 countries. A recipient of The Lifetime Achievement Award from The Leadership Legacy Project of the International Leadership Association, Kets de Vries is viewed as one of the world’s six founding professionals in the development of leadership as a field and discipline. Kets de Vries founded INSEAD’s Global Leadership Center, and is founder and program director of INSEAD’s Challenge of Leadership Program.

Katharina Balazs’s picture

Katharina Balazs

Katharina Balazs is an associate professor at ESCP Europe and an executive coach at the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre.