Less than 10 percent of the global workforce has access to a workplace wellness program, but workplace wellness is still a $47 billion industry, and one that is "heavily concentrated in high-income countries in North America, Western Europe, and Asia," according to a 2018 report by the Global Wellness Institute. But how effective are these programs, really? Do in-office massage sessions, corporate yoga centers, and company retreats really cure employees' stress and anxieties? Yes they certainly can—but not unless employees also have access to flexibility.

As our research shows, the inflexibility of the current workday structure has a substantial negative impact on workers' ability to care for themselves and to stay productive. The workday, as it stands now, makes it challenging for 30 percent of the workforce to get enough sleep at night, for 26 percent to attend periodic health appointments, and for 30 percent to attend recurring health appointments.

Wellness programs can't clear these hurdles alone. "The problem with existing programs is that they aim to address poor health and wellness by adding incentives for being well rather than removing the barriers to being well," we say in our research paper. "If an employee doesn't have the flexibility to attend a recurring appointment that conflicts with standard working hours, no incentive is going to enable that employee to effectively manage their condition."

Flexibility removes those barriers. Time-based modifications to the workday like MicroAgility and TimeShift allow workers time to see doctors or therapists and time to exercise. Location-based modifications to the workday like Remote and DeskPlus allow sick workers to work from home if they want to, they allow well workers to stay well during public health crises, and they allow workers with disabilities and chronic conditions to manage their health better. Plus, the TravelLite flex type mitigates the health hazards of frequent business travel.

In a 2018 article, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries and Katharina Balazs of the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre identify flexible work arrangements—which "give people greater control of their personal and professional lives"—as a marker of "organisations that truly enable wellness."

The researchers also say that "the acid test of a great place to work is when employees can enthusiastically recommend it to their friends and family members," which represents "a clear sign that the organisation has its employees' wellness at heart." Here, too, flexibility yields tangible results: As we note in our research paper, employees with access to flexibility had employee net promoter scores (eNPS) 48 points higher than those without.

That said, Kets de Vries and Balazs aren't advising employers to "throw wellness programmes out the window." They're advising employers to not throw money at wellness programs without addressing the underlying life-work compatibility issues first. Employers must ensure their company culture is one that truly prioritizes wellness through sustainable policies. "Executives better realise that if the basics are not in place," the researchers write, "their expensive wellness programmes will just be a waste of money."