Author: Matias Golob, PhD.

Wellness is for everyone

Let’s start with a fundamental point underpinning efforts to enhance health and well-being: wellness ought to inspire every one of us to be active agents in the pursuit of a happy and fulfilling life. It should invite us to be deliberate in our intentions, choices, and actions.

And yet, we may find that in many instances we are not the architects of our efforts. For the most part, we are told what are “appropriate” aims and how to achieve them. In our modern and connected society, it seems like everyone is trying to sell us wellness. Consider for a moment the proliferation of products and services being offered by self-help experts, clothing and beauty companies, car makers, social influencers, and many other brands vying to shape our efforts to improve our health and well-being. We are bombarded with messages daily that suggest, for example, if only you consume such and such vitamins, or practice mindfulness every day, or bought that red convertible, you would be well on your way to better health and happiness!

Employers also actively work to shape efforts to improve the health and well-being of their workforce. This is largely due to the relationship between healthcare coverage and the workplace. Disease prevention initiatives, operating under the guise of corporate wellness programs, are being used by employers of all sizes to contain the escalating costs of healthcare. Participation in sponsored initiatives, such as health risk assessments, biometrics and preventative screenings, health coaching, learning programs and challenges, is rewarded with reduced insurance premiums, gift cards, and other incentives. But are these initiatives making a difference? And at what costs?

Notwithstanding the positive intentions and impacts of disease prevention and health promotion initiatives, shaping employees’ understanding and application of wellness can simultaneously act to suppress creativity and self-determination. Moreover, such actions can contribute to a workplace culture that is indifferent or even hostile to different perspectives and outcomes. Empirical data have shown that despite the efforts of experts and technological advancements, employee participation in corporate wellness programs remains low. What’s more, the data have revealed that minority and disenfranchised populations – which also happen to be most affected by health disparities, are the least likely to participate in corporate wellness programs. By and large, employers fall short in building capacity to enhance employee health, well-being, and performance.

In the best of scenarios, corporate wellness programs reduce or sustain overall healthcare spending while generating higher morale, loyalty, and productivity. At Konnected, we have found that the key to achieving these and other outcomes is by engaging employees as equal and valued partners in the design, implementation, and evaluation of wellness initiatives.

Engaging employees as partners

Participatory approaches are fundamentally opposed to top-down models. The intention is co-creation: creating with rather than for people, with the intention to build capacity for change. By deliberately developing solutions with the consultation and participation of those intended to be the beneficiaries, users, and stakeholders, leaders create space for individuals to actively form and communicate a diverse range of meanings and understandings about health and happiness. This point is particularly important to note when considering the positions of power held by senior leadership, HR managers, and health and wellness experts. The position of power occupied by such individuals, as “knowledgeable’ in the domain of wellness, can operate to prescribe, define, and frame what counts as appropriate in the pursuit of a happy and fulfilling life. Indeed, while many companies believe, without hard evidence, that their wellness programs deliver returns on investment (ROI), they are blind to how employees actually view, let alone embrace, their initiatives.

Engaging employees as partners in designing, implementing, and evaluating wellness initiatives is a promising approach for optimizing the impact and sustainability of corporate wellness programs. In our work with both small and large employers, we have found that participatory processes have achieved substantial improvements in engagement and participation, and subsequently generated safe spaces for innovation. Participatory processes have built capacity for the voices and perspectives of disenfranchised populations to be valued, in turn generating insights that have shaped wellness initiatives and product development. They have served to challenge established beliefs and opinions and have acted as a catalyst for peer-to-peer support and engagement. In doing so, program sponsors have achieved improved health and performance metrics. Participatory approaches thus represent a pragmatic response for reciprocal capacity building of employees, organizational leaders, experts, and service providers.

Yet, there is a need to pay close attention to how employees are engaged – in particular, leaders ought to consider their roles and positions of power. Participatory approaches can set in motion the processes by which all employees, can, in concert with leaders, experts and service providers, critically analyze the meaning and application of wellness to develop initiatives that positively impact health, well-being and performance. However, they can nevertheless reproduce the very inequalities that the process seeks to challenge, particularly if leaders and experts control how the topic of wellness can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about, and thus how initiatives are designed and implemented.

I stress the need for leaders to facilitate employees’ ability to critically analyze the limits and creative possibilities of the multiple and perhaps even contradictory knowledge claims that inform wellness practices. This can be accomplished through informal and non-identifying mediums, or intentional in-person settings, which lend themselves better for critical reflection and open communication and knowledge exchange. The key is for leaders and experts to create safe spaces for interaction and sharing, acting as facilitators to generate beneficial engagements among all participants. In my experiences, such opportunities to learn from, with and about others yielded important insights that problematized my understanding and application of wellness. For example, my understanding of wellness as an “individual pursuit” has been challenged and reframed by people who deliberately operate without a sense of “self” and are driven to act in ways that support their communities and families. In this case, the design and message of wellness initiatives require that we reframe to consider the impact on the ‘whole’ as opposed to the individual actor.

We must also be ready to critically reflect on our workplace culture and accept that change might be required. Establishing a safe environment that supports meaningfully engaging employees as partners in co-creating wellness initiatives requires effectively addressing dominant aspects of our societal culture, such as the emphasis on productivity and the prevalent traditional top-down organizational structures. While we may not escape or transform the culture of our society, we can effectively act upon the established structure through the mediums we create and support within our workplaces. This a very important point to build organizational capacity. It is always possible for individuals and groups of individuals to “resist” the status quo and in doing so create new possibilities for themselves and others. If this is not the crux of wellness, then what is?

At Konnected, we are driven to help companies of all sizes in engaging their population to establish impactful and sustainable wellness programs. We can assist you improve the health and performance of your workforce with our solutions designed to cultivate a culture of inclusion and belonging. 




We can assist you in improving the health and performance of your workforce with our solutions designed to cultivate a culture of inclusion and belonging.

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