Why Company Wellness Programs Are Doomed to Fail


Are your company wellness programs doomed to fail?

I recently moved to Austin, Texas where cool is simply part of the city culture. So I was not surprised to find that many of the great places to work for are riding on the band wagon of employee wellness programs. These offerings range from gaming lounges, bring your dog to work, in-office massage, meditation and yoga classes, nutritional snack stations and more. This is great, but something seems to me to be missing on their menu of wellness offerings.

Let’s say a company has employee wellness programs and employees also experience these kind of daily occurrences:

  • An employee is lunching on their company sponsored kale salad and protein drink for lunch and finds out from a co-worker that their boss gave a big project to someone else that she was told she was going to get.
  • An employee comes out of the company sponsored mediation class and his boss surprises him with in impromptu meeting to review his mid-year performance.
  • During a heated game of ping pong, a new boss decides to tell her employee this is her last day and has no idea who will take over her role.

What do all three of these scenarios have in common? Unhealthy, or perhaps more accurate to say, unconscious leadership.


Most leaders don’t intentionally activate the pain centers of their employee’s brains, but that is exactly what they are doing. New research using fMRI conducted by Matt Lieberman, author of the new book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect and his UCLA lab, — shows that “our brains react to social pain and pleasure in much the same way as they do to physical pain and pleasure. Leaders that inflict things like unfair treatment, ambiguous expectations, exclusionary practices, and mishandling feedback are “inflicting social pinches that to the brain which responds as if they were actually doing physical harm.”


Every day social interactions with a nonconscious leader triggers a threat response researchers have learned that tends to be more intense and longer-lasting than the reward response. How long will the benefits of a meditation class last when an employee encounters threat inducing behaviors from their boss? I think there is a logical case for assuming companies with employee wellness programs and unconscious leaders are losing ROI on their wellness investments.


I recently met Melanie Weinberger, founder and CEO of the Fit Steady workplace wellness consulting company in Austin. Weinberger has proven with her clients that to get a solid ROI from wellness program investments, “You have to create an environment that matches the type of people you want to have working for you,”
In my experience, nothing sets the tone for a healthy employee experience more than their interactions with their boss. One of my clients, a global automotive supplier has amazing employee retention even after having fought their way out of bankruptcy with as traditional employee benefits as you can find. There are no ping pong tables in the cafeteria or prepared nutritional lunches, or healthy lunch and learn workshops.


Dedicated leaders who have created a culture of caring for their employees well being by learning how to be the best leaders they can be, and nurturing quality relationships that many employees say feels like working for family.

I’m all for the latest and greatest in wellness programs, but without conscious or mindful leadership, wellness initiatives can only do so much, and sadly will more often lose money.

If a company is going to invest in nutrition workshops, fun and games, and ergonomic masseurs, don’t forget to do what it takes to create more conscious leaders too.

Read about using the Enneagram and Neuroscience as one way to boost your leader’s consciousness!

What company wellness program practices have you seen work? Tell us below!