How can you make your employee wellness program more inclusive?
Over the years, I’ve heard some upsetting stories about workplace wellness programs – from cultural foods being dismissed as unhealthy to stigmatizing weight loss challenges, from culturally insensitive remarks to employees being pushed, pulled, and prodded to explain why they don’t want to participate.
While there are plenty of good intentions out there, we can’t overlook the fact that the wellness industry has an exclusivity problem. And, if we’re being honest, the American workplace does, too. If employees feel uncomfortable, singled out, or stressed out by a company wellness program, then that program is harming their wellness rather than helping it.
Here are some tips to help make your employee wellness program more inclusive:
- Consider your workforce’s cultural and ethnic composition. Many nutrition programs take a white-centric approach and mistakenly assume all cultural foods are unhealthy. Not only is this untrue, it is also stigmatizing to have a nutrition professional dismiss an entire culture’s foods. Employees should not feel self-conscious bringing their cultural foods into work for lunch.
- Consider your workforce’s overall socioeconomic status. If a company’s wages are relatively low, advising its employees to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store (ie. only buy fresh produce and meats) is not particularly helpful since it may be economically unfeasible. Your wellness program must propose accessible solutions to your employees to be helpful.
- Avoid weight loss challenges. These challenges are incredibly stigmatizing to employees in larger bodies, making the workplace an uncomfortable and sometimes hostile place. These may also be triggering to employees with a history of eating disorders and disordered eating. Finally, the data shows these challenges are completely ineffective as employees don’t make lasting healthful changes. So why risk harming the well-being of some staffers?
- Incentivizing participation is great, but keep in mind that employees may have their own personal reasons for not participating that they are not obligated to disclose to you. For example, an employee in eating disorder recovery may choose not to participate in a healthy cooking class that discusses calorie counting. An employee with a larger body may feel too self-conscious to participate in a fitness class. Participating in certain activities may be considered inappropriate in some employees’ culture. The workplace needs to be a safe space where employees feel free to choose whether to participate in activities based on the reasons important to them.
Your HR department should be heavily involved in planning your wellness programs to help ensure company demographics are considered. Be sure to share a company profile with your prospective wellness program providers including that workforce composition information and ask them what they propose in light of that information. You could also request to see examples of their previous programming for other companies to get an idea of whether they are appropriate for your workforce.