man thinking about the why of wellness

The Why of Wellness

6-minute read

There’s a lot of talk lately about discovering your why, which I guess is similar to your purpose. For wellness professionals, this quest may prompt another: What’s the why of employee well-being?

Time was, wellness programs were advocated with the promise of squashing healthcare costs. Then we heard they’d reduce absenteeism. And presenteeism. Ultimately, wellness was held up as a gateway to recruitment, retention, engagement, and productivity.

Any of these objectives may or may not stand up to scrutiny. Regardless, are they the why?

As often as I’ve been called cynical because I demand evidence of wellness programs doing what we’ve always said they’ll do, I also have been called naïve for insisting these outcomes aren’t dealbreakers. Supporting employee well-being, I argue, is the right thing to do. Real cynics balk, “The right thing to do? A childish notion held only by those unschooled in the ways of business. The purpose of a corporation is to make money, not to ‘do the right thing.’”

Financial outcomes are admirable, if and when they result from a well-being strategy, but they’re by no means our sole purpose. Even improving the health of a company’s workforce — seemingly a no-brainer — may not be the be-all-and-end-all.

Those of us on the frontline are called to something greater — something implicit when we identify as well-being leaders.

Employers as Well-Being Collaborators

Championing well-being, we believe, is a societal obligation. Most members of civilized societies, by definition, share this view. If we’re not taking care of each other, we’re not so civilized.

As leaders, we see the big picture: The greatest public health victories of recent times — like the drastic reduction in tobacco use, unprecedented improvements in driver safety, and anticipated mitigation of COVID — result from collaborative effort by a full array of stakeholders: schools, government, faith-based organizations, community groups, individuals, and, yes… employers.

We can’t achieve a healthy society without employers being fully engaged, in the same way that we need employers all in with other social goods, like sustainability and inclusion. Employers must do the right thing when they can. Our role as well-being leaders is to keep them on course.

The Sum of Broad Strategies

An employer wouldn’t conduct a 6-week challenge to promote COVID vaccination, then spend years trying to prove the initiative’s return on investment. Business leaders recognize their organization’s part in something greater — a part that, like all good well-being strategies, has potential to benefit the organization, as well.

COVID may be too obvious an example. Consider something more pedestrian — a nutrition program. Will employees achieve better well-being by having healthier food options at the workplace? Maybe not. Are we more likely to have better population health outcomes if we all have more nutritious options throughout our environments, including the workplace? Certainly.

Will your mental health program make a mark on employee well-being this fiscal year? I doubt it. But do we have any hope to overcome society’s growing mental health challenges without employers doing everything they can to help? No way.

Similarly, when we advance an organizational strategy to promote fitness, mindfulness, or financial well-being, we needn’t measure success based exclusively on confined short-term outcomes. They’re nice to have when we can get them, but we have to recognize that advancement of well-being is the sum of broad social strategies measured in years, not weeks.

The why of employee wellness is to fulfill an essential role in a societywide — perhaps global — endeavor. It’s a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Rigorous research, recognition of success, and constructive criticism should be welcomed. If studies were to determine that our well-being strategies have minimal impact, our response should be to craft better strategies — never to turn our back on well-being.

Declarations insisting profit is the sole purpose of business are relics of days gone by. In 2019, 181 CEOs from some of America’s largest firms, representing the Business Roundtable, signed a statement redefining the why of corporations: They don’t exist for the exclusive benefit of shareholders, but to serve all stakeholders, including employees and the community, in the pursuit of shared prosperity.

One may question whether the actions of all Roundtable signatories align with their values, but this statement stands as evidence that, in general, the business community and the public expect more of corporations.


America’s leading companies value their employees and understand the importance of investing in their health and wellbeing by providing support during both good and difficult times.

Business Roundtable

Well-Being Excellence in Context

Once we accept that our well-being strategies are part of a greater good, standards of excellence are clear. Our initiatives should be:

  • Voluntary
  • Positive — not punitive, stigmatizing, or harmful in any way
  • Aligned with broader goals, like those in Healthy People 2030.

In the end, understanding the why of well-being doesn’t require us to ask, “Why would a successful company adopt a well-being strategy?” The question is: “Why wouldn’t it?”


Bob MerbergBob Merberg
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.