Employers claim they want to improve workers' wellbeing, but refuse to do the one thing that will actually help: pay them more

  • Like sexual harassment training and gender equity initiatives, there isn’t much evidence that employee wellness programs work.
  • Yet HR departments seem intent on pouring money into health-tracking and meditation apps.
  • The best thing employers can do is pay their employees more and reduce their economic stressors.
  • Catherine Liu is professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California Irvine. She is the author of the book Virtue Hoarders: the Case Against the Professional Managerial Class.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I take the University of California online anti-sexual harassment training course regularly, and when I do, I believe I’m helping the world become a better place. Like most working women, I’ve suffered harassment at work, and despite evidence from empirical studies and from my own experience that the training doesn’t work and that I take it to limit the liability of my employer in a sexual harassment lawsuit, I will myself to believe in it.

Staff and faculty who have been harassed simply suck it up and move on, changing positions if possible or just avoiding the offender. Occasionally, a scandal breaks through and a harassment case leads to the dismissal of a famous professor or administrator; yet, the victims who brought the suit forward usually live forever with the reputation of being a “troublemaker.” 

Despite countless initiatives, corporate and university gender equity programs failed to mitigate damage done to the lives of working women wrought by COVID lockdowns as work moved home and online, and schools and daycares closed. Women’s participation in the workforce has dropped to 1988 levels, with women bearing the brunt of COVID unemployment figures at every level of income and education: four decades of progress for women at work has been undone in one year.

Like sexual harassment and gender equity initiatives, employee wellness programs are another managerial innovation that large organizations love, despite mounting evidence that such programs do not significantly improve employee health or save employers money.

Employee wellness programs don’t work

The University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana and Rand Corporation studies have shown that employee participation in employee wellness programs were low and that those who used them tended to be healthier and better paid — essentially resulting in a covert shift of organizational resources away from the lowest paid and unhealthiest employees to the best paid and healthiest ones. The Rand Corporation findings focused on maximizing employer return on investment, and recommended that employers focus their wellness programs on employees with the most severe health issues.

And yet, if your boss is paying attention to your muscle mass, poor sleep, lack of exercise or bad eating habits, I can guarantee that they are not interested in your wellbeing. They are, instead, very worried about having to pay higher health insurance premiums if their workforce is plagued with chronic ill health. Wellness programs neither save employers money nor increase employee wellbeing, but they continue to proliferate. Human Resources wellness centers cannot stop spending money on health tracking, meditation, and exercise apps that are “free to download” onto employee smartphones. 

Through my workplace, I can download MyStrength, an app that helps me cope with stress in real time, or I can try the Headspace app, which will also help me “weather the storm” through meditation and exercise. If these two apps do not get me to optimal wellness, there is an app that reminds me to step away occasionally  from my desk to do downward-facing dog. 

As retired Harvard Business School Professor, Shoshana Zuboff shows in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, once data gathering reaches a certain scale, it becomes enormously valuable and exploitable. What is to prevent employers from monetizing the data gathered by all those “free” wellness apps? Very little, according to Zuboff, because privacy regulations lag behind tech innovations. 

Poor economic conditions drive wellness

Wellness initiatives are designed to disguise the role that a solid paycheck plays in people’s overall wellbeing — in fact, low pay is one of the greatest stressors for workers of all races and sexes. Low socioeconomic status and poor working conditions lead to higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Other indicators of stress, like diabetes and obesity, increase across populations with lower job status and lower pay. 

People who make good money and have a high degree of control over their work lives also enjoy dramatically greater degrees of mental and physical wellbeing. A recent study on Universal Basic Income (UBI) from Stockton, California, a small, economically struggling city in California’s Central Valley, confirmed the connection between money and wellbeing. For two years, the program gave $500 a month to 125 randomly selected residents living at or below the city’s median income. 

Initial results of the study show that the monthly cash infusion led to dramatic decreases in depression and anxiety in recipients of the no-strings-attached cash. Improved mental wellbeing allowed recipients to pay debts, find work, and deepen relationships with friends and family. The findings from Stockton disprove the fantasy that working class and poor Americans would be profligate with cash infusions. UBI is a controversial issue, but the Stockton study offers important lessons about the power of money in relationship to mental health and overall well-being. 

No boundaries at work

If the pre-woke workplace was filled with sexism, racism, and overtly punitive evaluation protocols that encouraged the promotion of networked, white, male employees, the contemporary workplace has evolved into experimental sites of surveillance and data-gathering, all in the name of “caring.” 

Covertly coercive, wellness initiatives serve as excuses for upper management to push aside questions of pay and pay equity for superficial engagement with our most private experiences. But, the last place I want to talk about my experiences of trauma is at work; I do not want my workplace to be involved with my daily practice of healing my wounds.

Just as school was my refuge from the unpredictability of home life when I was a child, I looked to work as a place where I could put aside, if only temporarily, my hair-trigger adrenaline-fueled over-reactions to setbacks and obstacles in order to better engage in the meaningful, joyful exercise of collectively exercised reason and argument. As a professor, I have come to believe that the best thing I could do for my students, traumatized and not, is to provide a space where the use of one’s intellect and powers of reason are respected, rewarded, and recognized. 

In the view of my employer though, my approach to trauma is both too old-fashioned and too commonsensical. In the past month, I have been asked to participate in training courses in trauma-sensitive pedagogy, whatever that could mean. The way in which COVID has impacted working mothers and the lowest paid employees at the university has hardened my cynicism about pseudo-progressive managerial initiatives to care for employee wellbeing and promote workplace equity. 

It is not social media addiction or millennials who are to blame for the deterioration of personal boundaries and the demise of critical thinking in our age: it is the pseudo-therapeutic initiatives of our over-managed world that have made it dangerous for us to insist on maintaining boundaries anywhere, but especially at work. Managerial initiatives infantilize workers while undermining our autonomy as private, suffering subjects. 

For those on the bottom of the pay scale in any organization, a bigger paycheck would improve their mental health far more than any wellness or trauma initiative imposed upon us by HR. For those at the top of the payscale who are rewarded for finding ways to pay their employees less, this is a hard, if not impossible lesson to learn. 

Catherine Liu is professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California Irvine. She is the author of the book Virtue Hoarders: the Case Against the Professional Managerial Class (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). She lives in Southern California and writes for Jacobin and has appeared on Chapo Trap House and Bungacast talking about her book and the class formation of credentialed elites in the 2021 global economy.

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