Most people can get behind the idea that health, happiness, and productivity at work are related concepts, and that companies have an opportunity to foster all three—to everybody’s benefit—with a corporate wellness program.
But while most companies do “something” to promote employee health and well-being, very few—just 7% of companies surveyed in a nationally representative 2008 study—offer what Laura Linnan, a professor of public health at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and head of the CDC-funded Workplace Health Research Network, calls a “comprehensive program.” And, she says, “what we know from the literature is that people who have comprehensive programs have better health outcomes and other outcomes we expect from a comprehensive approach.”
The health outcomes of corporate wellness programs are many, including smoking cessation, weight loss and obesity prevention, diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol management, and personal health and safety practices like seat belt use, sleep hygiene, and stress management.
Business outcomes include lower absenteeism, higher job satisfaction and work productivity, higher employee retention, and lower health care costs. Given the variety in types of wellness programs, it’s difficult to pinpoint precise financial benefits, but one 2012 review of 62 studies, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, found 25 percent lower sick leave, health plan, workers’ compensation, and disability insurance costs among companies that had wellness programs. And a 2014 Harvard Business Review study of 20 companies found an average annual health care cost increase of 1-2% for companies with wellness programs, compared to the 7% national average.
Linnan, who was lead author of the 2008 study and is developing a new national survey of the corporate wellness landscape, identifies five best practices that define a wellness program that’s likely to produce results employees and employers both seek.
1. Programs Are Practical and Accessible
Comprehensive wellness initiatives offer a variety of scheduled programs. These might include yoga classes; lunchtime stress management seminars that address everything from sleep to work-life balance to financial health; programs to help employees quit smoking; cooking classes; healthy recipe exchanges; fitness challenges; or weight loss initiatives and competitions. Draper, Inc., the Spiceland, Ind.-based manufacturer of gym equipment, window shades, and projection screens was named the 2014 Healthiest Workplace in America by the independent corporate wellness research and data analysis firm Healthiest Employers. There, a 10-week weight loss challenge called “Dump Your Plump” has 12 teams of six employees each competing to win weekly grocery gift cards and, at the end of the contest, a cash prize.
2. The Work Environment Is Health-Conscious
Healthy vending machine and cafeteria offerings often top the list of ways successful wellness programs create workplaces that encourage healthy behaviors on a daily basis.
“A supportive company culture is exemplified by company cafeterias, where healthy food is abundant, affordable, clearly labeled, tastefully prepared, and situated at eye level at the checkout counter. When possible, these foods are also priced lower than less healthy items,” writes Ron Z. Goetzel of Emory University in a 2014 review of workplace wellness studies published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
“In addition, healthy and appealing food is served at meetings, included in company-provided overtime meals, and available in vending machines.”
Being mindful of workplace noise, encouraging regular and appropriate breaks, and posting signs informing employees of wellness initiatives are also important ways the corporate environment can foster wellness. Many companies offer in-house workout spaces or marked walking paths on the corporate campus to encourage physical activity. Others institute no-smoking policies or policies requiring seat belt use in company vehicles.
“It’s not a one-shot,” said Linnan. “The social and physical environment have to be supportive—there should be signage, policies, benefits in place that support individuals who want to make a healthy behavior change.”
3. Wellness Is Integrated into the Company's Structure
Company leadership needs to see it as a cohesive entity, seamless with workplace safety, benefits, human resources, and other infrastructure elements.
“People start to resent when programs are thrown out there, but they’re working in hazardous conditions, or their employer is saying they really should lose weight or quit smoking,” said Linnan. “They’re so stressed, they’re smoking because they’re stressed.”
Successful programs have dedicated budgets and administrative staff that not only develop wellness programs employees are interested in, but also enable employees to participate without feeling like they’re having to choose between doing their jobs and living a healthy lifestyle.
“Your wellness program should be embedded in everything your organization does,” said Jason Lang, team lead for workplace health programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s just as important as sales and marketing. It’s just as important as research and development. It’s just as important as customer service.”
At Draper, Inc., full-time safety and wellness director Linda Brinson produces a monthly newsletter featuring “wellness superheroes” who are named by their peers for modeling healthy behaviors in the workplace. “We do things to try to help [employees] create a lifestyle change,” she said, “If they make a lifestyle change, that becomes the norm for them.”
4. Wellness Is Linked to Existing Support Programs
Linkages between a company’s wellness program and other company benefits like employee assistance programs (EAPs) are key to making it easier for employees to get support when they are in a difficult emotional or physical situation that affects both their health and their work. EAPs connect employees to counselors who can advise them confidentially on issues from emotional distress to a difficult medical diagnosis to personal or work relationship issues to life events like marriage or becoming a parent. When EAPs and other support systems are in place, said Linnan, “people know they’re cared about and they also know that the default option for them when they’re at work is to be healthy.”
5. Health Screenings and Education Are Offered
Health screenings are a controversial aspect of the corporate wellness landscape, with some claiming that tracking cholesterol, body mass index, and other figures amounts to de facto discrimination that places a heavier financial burden on workers in less-than-ideal health.
Last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed at least three federal lawsuits, against the Baraboo, WI-based plastics manufacturing company Flambeau, Inc., Morristown, NJ-based Honeywell Corp., and Manitowoc, WI-based Orion Energy Systems, alleging that mandatory medical testing of workers violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. But most companies offer voluntary screenings and often incentivize participation with bonuses like an extra vacation day or a company contribution to a flexible spending account.
Researchers recommend these voluntary screenings because they can help educate employees about their own health and empower them to set goals for making improvements; though all employees will receive their screening results from the third party vendor that typically conducts the tests, high-risk individuals may receive further outreach and counseling to help them set a plan in motion. The data, which companies generally receive in aggregate form without personal identifiers, also helps companies develop programs around the issues that most affect its employees.
“You have to have an understanding of what your work force’s health needs are,” said Linnan. That is: to offer employees the support they need and provide the most health-conscious work environment possible.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Massachusetts.