The idea of wellness in the workplace isn’t exactly new, but there’s a reason it feels that way.
Much of the credit for the growing interest in workplace wellness programs can be attributed to dedicated physicians, nutritionists, mental health and public health professionals working to quantify the positive effects of physical and mental well-being, and producing landmark studies on the subject which have caught the attention of employees and business owners alike.
According to a 2012 Gallup State of the American Workplace study, employees who had high overall “well-being” had 41% reduced health-related costs compared with employees who had average well-being. They also had 62% fewer health-related costs compared with employees who reported poor well-being.
A 2015 Willis survey of wellness programs found employers can experience financial returns and hiring advantages through improved morale, which leads to higher employee engagement and productivity.
As millennials, who tend to place more value on workplace benefits, make up a larger portion of the workforce, having a well-regarded wellness program can keep a company competitive.
Anthem Corp at the Fit4Kids run in Richmond, VA. Credit: OneDigital
Some think tanks are frosty towards workplace wellness, particularly the RAND Corporation, which released a study of Fortune 500 companies, concluding workplace wellness initiatives do not contribute much to companies’ return on investment.
But when it comes to mental health and stress reduction, the numbers speak for themselves. One in five U.S. adults suffer from mental health concerns, resulting in 200 million lost workdays, and the loss of $193 billion in lost earnings each year.
Today, more than 90% of businesses offer employees some sort of wellness benefit, even if it’s just a flu shot.
Wellness-conscious employees at the Pitsburgh Marathon. Credit: OneDigital
There’s plenty of room for improvement. For all the popularity of wellness programs, many businesses don’t go about implementing them in the right way. Even though half of employers claim to have a workplace wellness program, only 17% met the standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Simply put, budgeting money for your office manager to start a walking group or massage day doesn’t really count as instituting a workplace wellness program.
For a business to have a comprehensive wellness program, it must actually be something your employees need; it must be easily accessible to them; and it must be supported by the company culture and mid-level managers.
“The two things you have to ask yourself is one, is this something my employees want and value, and two, how can I make the cultural and environmental changes to make it accessible?” says Shira Wilensky, health and wellbeing national practice leader at OneDigital, a health and employee benefits company.
“The easy thing to do is just to spend the money, but even a good vendor will fail if you don’t address your structural challenges and what your employees value,” says Wilensky.
Wilensky has been a wellness professional for 13 years after an education in sports medicine showed her what a positive impact health and wellbeing had on people’s everyday life.
She believes the most important things to do when instituting a wellness program is to figure out what it is your employees need, and address why they aren’t able to get it.
Some larger companies have specific challenges to meet, such as Banfield Pet Hospital’s first-of-its-kind suicide prevention initiative, which it launched in partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Other companies might find what they need is more about getting employees access to the resources they have already.
“I always recommend first looking at the pieces you already have in place,” says Wilensky. Companies that already provide healthcare options or financial wellness, such as student loan payback or 401K matching programs, can determine if the resources they offer are being used by their employees.
They can identify what programs are not being used and design a program to improve.
Employees take part in annual 'Office Olympics' in Hartford, CT. Credit: OneDigital
“How can you better package and communicate those things to your employees? Part of it is education,” Wilensky says.
“Making sure employees know that your health benefits include mental health and not just physical health. It’s a mistake to think that to have a great wellness program you need to spend a lot of money.”
RELATED STORY: The Wild West of Wellness Coaching
Wellness initiatives also must be tailored to fit a company’s particular needs. A company’s wellness program must have clear and measurable targets if it wants to achieve success, says Jessica Grossmeier, vice president of research at the Health Enhancement Research Organization.
Some jobs have the potential to become stressful and impact mental health, which might require telecommuting days or stress-reduction efforts. Other jobs might not be as stressful, but might be sedentary or socially isolating, which might be solved by instituting a walking group.
Her organization provides companies that want to get serious about wellness with a scorecard to help employers determine how to measure employee wellness, determine what areas of wellness could be improved, and institute programs to address those areas.
The biggest roadblock to the success of wellness programs is company culture that is resistant to it. “Your company might offer a flu shot, but if employees feel like they can’t leave their desk to go get one, it’s not an effective program,” says Grossmeier.
Some managers might be accustomed to the stressful conditions they create for those underneath them. Recent research suggests social stigma and company culture are the biggest roadblocks employees face towards addressing their wellness concerns.
Mental health is still an issue that carries with it social stigma. It makes asking for mental health assistance particularly challenging for those who need it.
Both Wilensky and Grossmeier attest to the importance of mid-level managers in creating company culture. “You have to have leadership who walks the talk on wellness,” said Wilensky.
Grossmeier adds: “We’ve all heard of the CEO who runs a marathon every week, but unless you get those mid-level managers involved, you won’t [see results,]. They are really the ones who lead by example.”
Company culture can often seem intangible, but according to both experts, it’s the mid-level managers who are seen as leaders and pace-setters. Unless mid-level managers lead and encourage, programs will only draw those few employees who would enjoy the activity if it were outside the company.
“I moderated a session at a forum where I brought together three employers,” says Grossmeier. “One of the employers shared a story about the head of HR for their whole organization admitting she was sneaking down the staircase every day in her tennis shoes to go to a wellness class, and the [employer] told her to wear her sneakers proudly out the front door.”
While workplace wellness initiatives are gaining in popularity, industry best practices are still not entirely understood. An overwhelming majority of businesses are at the very least trying to engage in wellness programing, but not everyone knows how.
As Oregon reaches full employment, companies are forced to compete over talent. A company which can boast an exceptional wellness program has a competitive advantage over companies that do not.
Wellness programs appear that they are here for good because of the ever-evolving nature of the workplace.
Says Wilensky: “Thanks to our lovely friend, the cell phone, people get calls at work about their electric bill or if their kid is sick at school. Just as often, employees feel obligated and stressed to answer [work messages] during off-business hours.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as work-life balance anymore. That’s why wellness issues have caught so much steam,” she says.
To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here.