Wellness may not be working for many companies, but it worked out very nicely for a shrewd unemployed 42-year-old who was retooling his résumé and his BMI.
I knew John from the neighborhood. I wasn’t sure what he did, but he seemed like a moderately successful sales or marketing professional of some sort. One day he surprised me by showing up at the gym. “Do I need to explain how these newfangled exercise machines work?” I asked.
“I’m getting in shape for a new job,” he explained.
“The [Miami] Dolphins could use help,” I deadpanned. It turned out that John was recently let go and in addition to updating and polishing his résumé, he was on a ferocious fitness regimen. He carried about 230 pounds on a 5-foot-10-inch frame — far from obese, but not exactly fighting trim. His goal was to impress interviewers with his ostentatious good health, youthful energy and 36-inch waist. In interviews, he’d find the right time and place to commend the HR director on the company’s “forward thinking” wellness plans, explaining how he always appreciated the connection between good health and job performance. Nice.
After about six weeks, John stopped going to the gym. I saw him several months later, happily employed but back to his natural state: overweight, perpetually flushed, with an equally persistent wheeze. My first thought was: good for John, he gave himself every edge to land a solid job, which hopefully includes generous health coverage. My second was: John’s story is another illustration of the many ways — and many reasons why — wellness programs fail most of the companies that implement them and the majority of people who participate in them.
We know the reasons they fall short: rewards lead to temporary gains; people don’t have the time or incentive; and poor program design fails to get at foundational behaviors. The cool apps and trackers soon lose their novelty and appeal, and in the “can’t blame them” category, some chuck rather than be hounded by their numbers all day long. In light of all this, I have a modest suggestion: Companies would be wise to get out of the wellness business during business hours and move the focus to the weekend, a time when they have the least control, but wellness programs may actually do the most good.
Give me a moment to explain. Several years ago I had a streak of highly mediocre weekends. Sundays would roll around and I’d look back with nothing to show — some tennis, stabs at a novel, a movie, maybe a decent neighbor-hood joint for dinner with the family, and some household-related odds and ends. The pudding, as the great man thun-dered, had no theme! From that point on, I set weekend goals: read a book, see a movie, exercise, listen to a new CD, do something cultural/social, discover a new restaurant. Some weekends I’d manage to do all six; sometimes three. Sometimes I’d fall off the wagon and spend endless hours chasing YouTube videos and looking for deals on tennis sneakers. Other times I’d do just two and still feel like I had accomplished something. It became my own weekend wellness and mental health program. I’d start Mondays with more spring in my step and begin organizing the next weekend before EOB Tuesday.
From there, it’s a small leap to imagine a framework for employees that similarly organizes their weekends per standard and nonstandard categories of wellness. It could enable them to share information, new ideas and resources, perhaps see how their respective weekends stacked up. Best of all, it’s the weekend, where work is less likely to intrude, and you have the time and interest to pursue these things. Bear in mind that any of these activities can become habit forming and follow you into the workweek – which is kind of the point.
Of course, it can become a problem when the boss says, “have a great weekend” and it starts sounding like a job requirement. Still, just about anything is better than “see you on Monday.”