Most of Kiara McKinney's coworkers didn't seem to think twice about the boot-camp-style workouts their boss suggested they regularly attend as a "team-bonding exercise." Or the decision to go out for pizza after because they'd "earned it."
But for McKinney, who was recovering from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, these extracurriculars — and the general mindset of "earning" food — were triggering and harmful. "There were so many times I wanted to tell them this was something I struggled with and opt-out, but I did feel like it counted against me if I didn't go," she says. Until she quit months later, there was only one running workout she didn't attend, and, even then, "I felt like they were judging how much I cared about myself and my body, and connecting that to my dedication to the team — to my worthiness," she remembers. "It was during a time when I was already feeling really terrible about myself because I'd gained weight in my recovery, and it all made it doubly hard for me."
More and more, work made her feel othered. "I was also the only person of color on the team and just built differently," she adds. "I felt completely different from everyone else."
During this time, McKinney, now 28, leaned on her therapist and husband, and eventually, she struck out on her own to start her own business. But her experience shows the dark side of the perennial trend of employers working to combine the worlds of wellness and work.
Since the 1980s, many employers have "been casually tossing around the word 'wellness' with little to show for it," according to The Global Wellness Summit's (GWS) 2023 trend report. So little, in fact, that 70% of "knowledge workers" around the world experienced burnout last year, according to a study by Asana (the term "knowledge workers" — which is used in the study to describe folks who "think for a living" — is worth examining and has been rightfully criticized as classist. Really, every job requires knowledge, no matter the color of the "collar" or whether you're mostly using your head, hands, or otherwise). Meanwhile, 38% of workers agreed they “wouldn’t wish their job on their worst enemy,” in a recent global survey of 2,200 employees, 600 C-suite leaders, and 600 HR executives, conducted by The Workforce Institute at UKG.
See, "work and wellness haven’t ever really gone hand in hand," The GWS report continues (this section of the report was authored by Cecelia Girr and Skyler Hubler, cultural strategists at the ad agency TBWA\Worldwide). "Hustle culture praised us for pushing our limits and punished us for logging off after a mere eight hours. Unfair pay, discrimination, and workplace harassment have long highlighted just how broken our systems are. And let’s not forget about layoffs."
The truth is, making a workplace "more well" typically means something different to employers (who may be looking to cut their company's health care costs through employee "wellness" programs, increase productivity, and spike longevity so folks stay in the workforce longer) and employees, who want to be treated well and be paid fairly — and who likely all have their own definitions of "health." "For so long, employers have checked the wellness box with things like nap pods in the office or forced social outings," adds Hubler. "But in reality, those 'solutions' are just further blurring the lines between work and personal life." Of course, that blurring can ultimately help employers who want to ensure their employees are dedicated. It can make your head spin.
Still, in the GWS report, they predicted that in 2023, workplace wellness may finally be "going from a false promise to a meaningful plan of action." This starts with the burgeoning four-day workweek, but doesn't end there. More employers are providing not just more vacation time, but access to mental health care, fertility treatments, elder care for those taking care of aging loved ones, and more, says Beth McGroarty, GWS's VP of Research. Looking forward health plans are expected to cover "psychedelic therapy" as a workplace benefit, too. "Enthea, the first provider of insurance plans for psychedelic healthcare… [has plans that] currently cover ketamine therapy, and will expand to include MDMA and psilocybin-assisted therapies as they become FDA-approved in the coming years," the report notes.
The authors of the GWS report believe there's reason to believe that after a pandemic, the "Great Resignation," and waves of "lying flat" and "quiet quitting," employers would be incentivized to give employees more access to the kind of wellness benefits they'd actually, well, benefit from. But, even if this report is right and more jobs really are supporting their employees and their health in positive ways, there are still plenty of employers getting it wrong. This is exemplified both in some employee "wellness programs," (more on those later) and in the kinds of activities bosses choose to do with their teams when networking.
You can see this in stories like McKinney's and in other recent examples. For example, The New York Times recently ran an article called "The Hottest Place to Network Is an Ice Bath," which told the story of Daring Foods executive Ross Mackay dealing with high turnover issues at his plant-based food company. Mackay says in the article that he saw "only one solution" to this problem. No, it wasn't to pay people more or reduce work hours, but… to get folks to jump into an ice bath together. Of course. After six minutes in a freezing plunge, Mackay said: "Our endorphins were through the roof and we all felt great about ourselves." This helped them work through their company's challenges, he told The Times.
I, for one, have done an ice bath before, and could barely stay in that torturous tub for two minutes on my own, let alone six, and with all my coworkers watching me. However well intended, team activities like these may make some people feel uncomfortable at best. When asked to comment on the specifics of this story, Mackay declined to comment through a spokesperson.
JaNaè Taylor, PhD, psychotherapist and founder of Minding My Black Business, calls activities like this "well-meaning but off the mark." "I immediately sort of cringe when I think of a spa kind of experience and being in this vulnerable and sacred space with coworkers, where you're not in your regular attire and might need to be in a swimsuit," she says. You might not be able to be fully present in your relaxation and you might be hyper-aware about being in this situation with your coworkers, rather than focusing on what they're saying. You're probably not getting the most out of either the work or the relaxation experience, and the whole thing becomes performative."
Even for those who might ordinarily enjoy an ice plunge or bootcamp workout on their own, combining it with work may just suck the pleasure right out of what was once a safe space in which they healed and nurtured themselves.
Dr. Taylor suggests, if you want your employees to relax and be well, pay them more and give them reasonable hours, so they can go enjoy the wellness or health activities that work for them in their own time. And if you want to find a way to team bond, give people choices, so they don't feel coerced into doing what the highest person on the chain wants to do. Giving people options can help employers avoid myriad "wellnessXwork" pitfalls. "There could be situations where someone needs accommodation if they're a person with a disability," Dr. Taylor says. "There also might be a financial cost to get to a place for team bonding. And, if it's a spa experience, who is providing the service? Is it a man or a woman? If it’s beauty related like a facial, does the spa worker know how to work with Black skin?" These are all things employers need to account for — and giving employees choices can only help. Beyond this, it's important to make a conscious effort to give employees a space to share if they're uncomfortable with a choice, where they can be heard without judgment.
But anecdotal evidence suggests these kinds of environments are still rare.
When I put a callout for this story, I heard from dozens of people who felt they'd been "forced" into wellness or fitness experiences by their bosses. Someone told me they cried when their boss asked them to "trust fall" off a 40-foot platform for "team-building." She stood on the edge and cried as her coworkers cheered from the bottom. Another person remembered their boss organizing a "keto challenge" for which their BMI would be posted on a large, public chart and they would be weighed in front of colleagues. Folks recalled feeling coerced into SoulCycle classes, paragliding experiences, and on long hikes.
Kate Bernyk, a communications strategist in New York, remembers that, earlier in her career, her workplace sent employees discounts for the gym and the dieting program Weight Watchers as part of a workplace wellness program — they could pay less for their health care if they participated. (These kind of "challenges" aren't uncommon, and often are designed to give employers a break on health insurance costs, even though a study in JAMA Health Forum found that employer-promoted wellness programs yielded few benefits). Meanwhile, Bernyk's team would often do group workouts or talk about their own dieting. All this made her feel judged and dejected.
"A lot of the time, I’m the only fat person in the room," she says. "It feels like everyone is essentially discussing, 'what's everyone doing today to not look like Kate?' I know that's not what they mean, exactly, but that's the message that’s being sent," she says.
Bernyk got a new gig and left that environment behind, but before she left, she spoke up and told her boss how uncomfortable the office culture made her. They heard her out, but she realizes calling these things out often isn't possible for people who are earlier in their careers, or fear retaliation. Really, it should be on the employer to make sure they're creating safe spaces and being considerate about how they're implementing so-called "wellness," she says. "The question employers need to first ask is 'What is 'health' and who's defining it?'" Bernyk says. "My definition might not be the same as yours, and people will look at me and make decisions about my health without knowing anything about my bloodwork, my history with disordered eating, anything. You can't make these judgments, because 'health' is incredibly individualized and unique for everyone."
"When I'm working, my body size, what I do in my free time, how I choose to take care of myself has very little to do with my paycheck and what I'm paid to do," she adds.
However, Bernyk notes that she believes that the American healthcare system is at least, in part, to blame for creating this work-meets-wellness "monster." "By tying health care to our employers, although they shouldn't be tied to our health, it's hard to tell them to butt out when they're the ones paying for it," she says.
Both Bernyk and McKinney agree it should be up to employers to make sure their attempts at "wellness" aren't actually making things worse. This is a larger-scale version of giving people choices, Dr. Taylor's key ingredient for a healthy work environment.
Still, the reality is, not everyone will have those options. As such, Bernyk recommends trying to screen out employers who could be harmful when you're interviewing. "During interviews, I would always ask about work culture, and specifically: 'How are you doing employee engagement, and what are some examples of how you bring employees together?' Is it a virtual game night or a retreat?" Asking about benefits and what 'workplace wellness' means to an employer can also help. This is essentially flipping the script some employers use to see if prospective employees are a cultural fit — including Mackay, who, in the Times article, mentioned that while interviewing a recent job candidate, he and the potential employee "did an IV drip and had a conversation for an hour… We need someone who fits our culture, and this is a good way to find out."
It's true that culture is key, and while everyone should have the autonomy to enjoy their own IV drip if that's what they want to do — and to run their businesses how they see fit — those in positions of power need to be careful how they wield wellness.
"The key is allowing your workers to prioritize their wellness themselves and giving them the tools to do so, whether that's time or money or whatever you can swing as an employer," says McKinney, who went on to run her own business. "Adults should have ownership over their schedules — and also their health."