The Side Effects of Enforcing Wellness

In wellness, there’s no one-size-fits-all regimen. In fact, the first step on the path to a better, healthier, happier life, is choice.

In a classic study, researchers placed two rats in a cage. Rat A was free to do whatever he liked. He ate whenever he liked, he hopped on his tiny treadmill to do a few laps whenever he was in the mood, and he slept whenever the urge to snooze came upon him. Basically, Rat A lived the rodent high life, and his brain bloomed with new brain cells. Rat B, who was yoked to Rat A and had to do whatever Rat A did, didn’t have it so good. Even though Rat B was on the same “healthy” schedule as the first rat, he lost brain cells. Unlike his thriving counterpart, he lacked one critical factor: Control.

A number of companies are hopping on the wellness bandwagon and using incentives to encourage their employees to adopt healthier lifestyles. Others are going even further and trying to enforce mandatory healthy lifestyles. Adopting a no-tobacco policy at work and at home, offering cash-incentives and gift cards, reimbursing workers for gym memberships and offering insurance premium discounts to those who meet health standards and surcharges to those who don’t, are among the many ways employers are nudging  — or should I say “strong-arming” — their employees to make better choices.

As the rat study highlights and as psychologists have known all along, having a choice matters most of all. Activities that are supposed to lower stress can in fact cause stress if done in the wrong spirit or under duress. Recent research further underscores the importance of autonomy. A study from the University of Toronto shows that when employees have freedom over what to do during lunch breaks — either engage in relaxing activities or work through them — they experience enhanced positive affects and were more relaxed and less fatigued. Contrary to expectations, working through lunch can be restorative, but only if employees choose to do so themselves.

Bottom line: Nobody likes to be told what to do. As mentioned, there is no “one size fits all” especially when it comes to health and stress management. Discover what works for you and build more of it into your day.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman