Corporate wellness concept needs reality check

Is it time employers focused on making work more enjoyable while staff take better care of themselves?

With some exceptions, employee benefit programmes before the Celtic Tiger years did not amount to much more than a company pension and paid holidays. The flamboyant spending and labour shortages of the boom years changed this, with a major improvement in health and wellness perks and more employers buying into the rapidly evolving culture of corporate wellbeing.

Fast forward to the pandemic and corporate wellness was once again centre-stage, albeit for different reasons. For many employers it became a must-have intervention during Covid simply to keep the wheels turning and foster resilience among employees struggling with isolation and exhaustion from the blurring of lines between work and domestic life.

Now, with the pandemic beginning to recede and job cuts making recruitment less reliant on generous rewards packages, those observing the new world of work are expecting to see changes in how employers deal with wellbeing. In short, organisations have been bombarded by an industry (worth an estimated €4 trillion globally and €1 billion a year in Ireland) telling them what they should and shouldn’t be doing for their employees and, for some, it’s reached the point of overload. The pandemic changed both needs and perspectives and there’s a growing feeling within the HR community that wellbeing initiatives must change too if they are to be fit for future purpose.

“I think we have to ask ourselves is it time for version 2.0 of wellbeing? Are we in a post-pandemic lag period where we can redesign programmes and maybe shake things up a bit?” asks executive business coach and strategic adviser Neil O’Brien.


O’Brien got his first coaching job back in 1990 when he was brought in to set up a training department in one of the large banks. The first task assigned to him by his boss was “to fix Seán” because no one could work with him. “I was given two days to fix Seán and I’ve been fixing Seáns ever since,” says O’Brien who made his comments at a recent webinar hosted by leadership and organisational development company Work Matters.

“At that time, I was running what we would now think of as wellbeing programmes but back then they went by names like stress management, time management and work/life balance.

“What’s happened within the wellbeing field since is remarkable and in many ways very positive, but I’m beginning to wonder if wellness hasn’t become the new religion? If the industry is to be believed it can fix everything from loneliness, poor sleep, burnout and stress to unhappiness and disconnection. I’ve also met all of the following: the money coach, the story coach, the fear coach, the soul coach, the sleep coach, the menopause coach and, recently, the activation coach. All of the above raise questions for me about where we’re going with wellbeing.

“We need to ask ourselves who now owns wellness and wellbeing in a corporate context? The employer has a duty of care, but we are in danger of blurring the boundaries of responsibility. Perhaps the ‘duty of care’ could simply be to push it back to employees. Ask them if they’re doing what they should be doing in terms of taking care of themselves. Do people just need to step up and take more care of their own wellbeing or at least to share in the accountability?”

O’Brien says it’s possible that corporate wellness as we know it has reached its natural level and that the energy going into promoting programmes often to indifferent or resistant audiences could be better spent elsewhere.

“Maybe we should just give up the struggle – and it can be a struggle – to get people to buy in,” he says. “Maybe it’s time to look at other things that make people feel good about themselves and their working lives. I’m not saying the pandemic was easy for anyone, but it didn’t create the crisis many people have been experiencing. The crisis was already there in their lives, but the severity of the pandemic magnified and intensified the fault line.”

In O’Brien’s view, organisations and individuals alike need time to deal with the trauma and losses of the pandemic and space to “restore their factory settings”. Organisations need to strip back layers of complexity for people, he says, rather than adding to them with more wellbeing initiatives that only make extra demands on those with already busy lives. He also thinks that easing up on the metrics might help the mood music at work.

“We need to make the workplace more enjoyable for people but as soon as you start trying to measure how successful you’re being at it you suck the joy out,” he says. “I’m all for metrics in the right place at the right time but when you try to measure something, it instantly stops being ‘the thing’ and becomes something else. For example, engagement ceases to become engagement and becomes a set of behaviours that people have to comply with.

“I’ve seen lists of 100 things companies are doing in the name of making things better for their employees – from anxiety-busting baking classes to basket weaving for executives. In my view, wellbeing version 2.0 isn’t about increasing this list to 1,000 things, it’s about doing one thing, like making work more enjoyable, well. Call it an advanced wellbeing strategy and an advanced strategy is always a reduction. Less is more.”