This week’s Worst Idea  comes to us courtesy of the Knoxville News Sentinel.  The article is headlined “Three steps to jumpstart wellness”.  And while it probably sounds petty of me to criticize such a piece about wellness—“Who could possibly be against wellness?”—there is something insidious about it that got my goat.

Several paragraphs into the piece, we find this: 

“Incentives can be given to recognize different types of engagement and successes. The first type is employee engagement with the worksite wellness program. These are participation incentives. In addition to small tokens for all employees, awards or larger incentives can be used to recognize winners or levels of achievement.

"The second type is employee engagement in healthful behaviors. Incentives for this type of engagement include both outcome-driven and progress-driven incentives. Outcome-driven incentives are given to employees for meeting specific health goals. Discounting insurance for employees with a healthy BMI, normal cholesterol levels or who are non-smokers are all examples of income-driven incentives.”

Do you see what’s happening here?  The concept of engagement has first been hijacked to mean something akin to employee participation in a company-sponsored program.  Things get even worse in the second paragraph, with its reference to “employee engagement in healthful behaviors.”  Even if we put aside the semantic confusion sown by such imprecise use of the term “employee engagement,” a topic I’ve covered ad nauseam in this space, there is something about such formulations that is kind of creepy in a Big Brother’ish sort of way.

It made me think of something that I had written years ago in the form of an open-letter to an employer from an employee on the topic of work/life balance:  “If you want to create real work/life balance, I’d be willing to make a deal with you.  Forget about ‘Casual Fridays’ and let me go home in time to have dinner with my family now and then.  I won’t complain if you bulldoze the basketball courts for additional parking as long as you don’t expect me to have my blackberry grafted to my hip so that I can respond to emails in the middle of the night.”  Such tactics, I argued, were ways of avoiding confronting the real challenges inherent in a real problem.  They represented work/life balance on the cheap. 

I sense something similar going on here in relation to employee engagement.  So I can imagine a similar open-letter containing something along these lines:  “You say you want real employee engagement?  Well, a little less paternalistic hectoring about my failure to engage in healthy habits and a little more focus on your responsibility for creating an atmosphere that will nurture it will go a long way.”