The research: André Spicer, a professor at Cass Business School at City University London, conducted a cultural and historical analysis of ideas about wellness in companies (which he published in a recent book, The Wellness Syndrome, coauthored by Stockholm University’s Carl Cederström). He concluded that corporate wellness programs not only provide low returns on investment but actually backfire, making many employees less healthy and more anxious about their jobs.

The challenge: Are “fun runs” and diet programs part of the problem, not the solution?

HBR: Professor Spicer, defend your research.

Spicer: In our analysis, my coauthor, Carl, and I were struck by the ineffectiveness of wellness programs. Several studies, notably one by the Rand Corporation, showed that they produce modest results at best. Take weight loss programs. Only a small percentage of enrollees stick with them, and even when they do, their average weight loss is about one kilogram.

What I didn’t expect was that many programs seemed to have the opposite of their intended effect. They were creating guilt and anxiety in employees. One big wellness program we looked at led previously happy employees in a stable job environment to become anxious about losing their jobs. It seemed to make them think they needed to be more attractive to their employer, and if they did something like smoking a cigarette, they felt it affected their employability.

That sounds insidious.

It goes further. Looking at the moral psychology literature, we found that people are judging others based on wellness characteristics, like weight. That’s not surprising, but what caught my attention is how often disgust at someone’s unhealthy behavior morphs into broader negativity. If people notice you doing something unhealthy, they think it makes you a bad worker. For instance, people see you eating a big lunch and assume that you’re lazy and unproductive.

So is it fair to say wellness programs are not just ineffective, they’re counterproductive?

In some cases, yes! With particularly intense wellness initiatives, we found, employees ploughed a great deal of energy into trying to improve their health. Sometimes this meant that employees had less time to focus on their core tasks. More frequently, these wellness initiatives would eat into employees’ personal lives. People would have time for working and exercising but little time for anything else.