Despite the popularity of wellness programs, these initiatives often fail to achieve high levels of employee engagement and participation. For example, according to Gartner’s 2021 Employee Value Proposition Survey, only a quarter of employees that have access to mental and emotional well-being offerings make use of them.
One possible explanation is that wellness initiatives are typically implemented from the top down. Often, leaders or the wellness companies they work with decide on offerings and activities designed to improve employee well-being. Employees are then incentivized to participate in a workplace wellness program they had no hand in creating. Feeling that it doesn’t reflect their concerns or beliefs about what they need to be well, they may lack the intrinsic motivation needed to participate in a meaningful way.
Stock-Based Approach To Workplace Wellness
After a set of investors took it over, Illinois Manufacturing Company CHI took a surprising approach to organizational and employee wellness that flips the script of the typical top-down procedure. First, they gave all 800 employees stock in the company (though the exact amount was not revealed). Second, they gave all workers the task of developing ways to make the company a better place to work at. As Pete Stavros, co-head of private equity at KKR, which acquired CHI in 2015, told the Washington Post:
We said, ‘We’ll follow your lead, wherever you want to go, we will spend it. But we don’t want a new $1 million piece of equipment. We want life to be better in the factory.”
When given the power and directive to improve their lives at work, employees thought carefully about their needs and made choices that best fit their wellness goals. For example, Butch Burwell, who has worked for the company for over 20 years, told NPR’s Allison Aubrey:
We had no cafeteria here whatsoever. We had a few snack machines and a few pop machines around. And the guys would, you know, of course, eat unhealthy because of that.
That year, the employees voted to create an on-site canteen with affordable healthy food. Changes in other years included a better break room, an improved air-conditioning system, and an on-site health clinic.
Are Employees Better Off?
Whether employees are better off because of this stock-based approach to wellness depends on what dimension of well-being is in question.
Most obviously, employees’ financial well-being improved significantly. CHI did well during the first seven years after investors took it over, and the value of worker’s equity shot up dramatically.
Ultimately, they received a major payday because of it. According to Jay Scamihorn, one of the factory managers, the average payout was between $175,000 to $200,000.
Naturally, such a substantial increase in financial resources results in improvements in other dimensions as well. For example, mental health and financial security are heavily intertwined.
Improvements in physical health depend on whether employees utilized the resources they voted for. While there is no hard data, anecdotal reports suggest employees are eating better and are physically healthier because of it.
Why Does It Work?
When it comes to explaining why giving employees stock led to the changes it did, many workers focus on the notion of empowerment. For example, Burwell states:
When you empower people to be able to be heard and be part of the decision process, it really means a lot to guys that work in a factory.
Similarly, Scamihorn notes:
The idea that we didn't have a place to eat for lunch and we built a cafeteria, I think that empowers people. I think they feel like, hey, they're listening to me.
The idea seems to be that when workers believe that what they think and feel matters and that they have control over their company’s decisions regarding its wellness initiatives, they are more invested in utilizing its resources to become and stay well.
Empowerment may also be helpful because of its connection with self-efficacy, which refers to the degree to which one believes they can successfully maintain a healthy habit. Equity can increase a worker’s sense of control over their job, and these effects could spill over to their self-perceived ability to adopt and sustain wellness-enhancing behaviors.
While offering up company equity may not be feasible for every organization, there is a general lesson that any company can take away from CHI’s unusual approach to workplace wellness. Specifically, companies should increasingly involve their employees in developing their corporate wellness programs and learn about their unique needs. In essence, this is what truly sets CHI’s program apart. As Tisha Pfeiffer, chief financial officer states:
The simple question that we asked is, what would make your day happier and healthier when you came to work every day? And that, in effect, changed it from the bottom up instead of the top down.
Another important thing to note is that when asked to improve their lives at the factory and make themselves happier, the workers at CHI focused on changes that would enhance their holistic well-being. This suggests the demand for comprehensive and multi-dimensional wellness initiatives in the workplace is high and desirable from the employee’s perspective. Ultimately this means that when workplace wellness isn’t working as intended, it’s likely not because employees don’t want to improve their well-being at work. Instead, it is more likely because they want more autonomy on their wellness journeys and a more significant say in what their company does to support their wellness goals.