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Is there a business case for workplace wellness programs?

Workplace health and wellness in recent years seems to be a major area of focus within many health and safety teams. In some ways, this looks like a lengthy and impossible journey with many leaders often questioning how effective these efforts can be in the long run and its benefits when it comes to overall productivity and an eventual return on investment.

It is no secret that people are happier and more productive if they feel healthy and safe at work, employers are in a unique position to be a good influence on health and welfare. In reality, however, many workplace health and well-being programs being introduced today are not necessarily that effective.

Many leaders, rightfully realise that it takes a lot of work to develop a healthy lifestyle and such efforts cannot stop once an organization reaches a certain target when it comes to its employee wellness efforts. What adds to the situations is that there is not enough data or strong science to support the notion that investing in fitness, diets, health awareness and mindfulness campaigns produces more productive employees that can significantly increase the businesses bottom line.

On the other hand, what some of those leadership teams fail to realise is that there are some healthy behaviors that can show results sooner than others and provide that “instant gratification” that satisfies their initial decision to approve such programs being implemented. When it comes to a workplace wellness program, those changes can be the best ones to make because leadership teams need to see results. They want some hint that their effort and investments are paying off even if they recognize the bigger pay-offs may take some time.

In my experience working with various establishments that had introduced such programs, potential success stemmed from how effectively the campaigns had been planned and what the intended long-term results were. If you know a general timeline of what changes to expect, what behaviors to focus on and the metrics that would allow you to measure success, you will be able to determine whether or not you’re on the right track with your wellness program.

I will below share a number of areas that require clear focus and pre-planning from team leaders to ensure wellness programs can be successful:

1.      Ensure you have the data to back your program up!

Programs that are mainly activity based can sometimes lack the data that would justify the initial investment and could affect the consistency of applying the program. From my experience, such programs are well and fun when the business is doing well. The second you have an economic downturn, they would be the first to go as the data is not there to back it up.

Health campaigns that are result driven where tangible data can be obtained such as reductions in the number of absenteeism, better biometric results, better employee retention, drops in cholesterol levels or a reduction in overall health care costs, have a better chance of being more seriously looked at by leaders within organizations.

To ensure success, a well-organized effort where goals are set, data is gathered and monitored by a set committee who periodically evaluate the overall effectiveness of the program may be required.  

2.      Incentives could be key!

Where health campaigns are present, a change of behavior is normally required by company employees. This, of course, requires a certain level of motivation for any potential program that is to be developed. Any incentive plan should initially be simple to understand and follow by company employees.

Having the right motivation ensures employees are given that initial push needed to begin and maintain a healthy lifestyle. The incentives should always act as a positive reinforcement, where a good behavior or obtaining good health results are rewarded.

Selecting the correct behavior to incentivise is also a key consideration. Don’t provide incentives for participation alone, incentives should be provided for the employees who have completed their 10,000 steps per day for the last month, completely stopped smoking, have achieved their perfect BMI score, achieved their targeted weight loss or have completed a five-kilometer run within a given time frame.

There are various models of wellness incentive programs that can be used and it is always recommended that any incentives used as part of a health campaign be adequately planned and assessed prior to rolling out the program.

3.      Involve employees in choosing and designing the programs

Use health and safety committees to come up with ideas for your next health campaign, send out an employee survey with the different options to get a general consensus or take suggestions and ask for volunteers at the end of monthly health and safety meetings.

Many companies make the mistake of leaving HSE or HR departments to choose what programs are best for the company without consulting members of staff first. This can generally result in lower participation by employees as they may not be able to identify with the program.

Consideration may also need be made when it comes to deciding whether to obtain external support for the program or to fully manage the programs internally. Not having the expertise in-house may require training for the personnel involved and may take a longer time as programs would have to be designed from scratch. The pros and cons of how to move forward should be weighed out when it comes to implementation, however, it is always a good idea to involve employees in the decision making process.

4.      Leadership Support!

Workplaces that demonstrate strong leadership support to their health campaigns tend to have the best wellness programs. When the CEO of the organization participates in a very visible way by taking part in team exercises, opening talks and generally believing in the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, employees are more empowered to join in.

As human beings, we are influenced by observer behaviour and what senior leaders do at our places of work is an influencing factor in how we behave. In fact, some studies have shown that wellness programs have the best return on investment when it is supported by leadership teams.

5.      Communication… Communication… Communication!

Many workplace wellness programs fail as they have not been communicated well throughout the company. I have been in organizations where I have found out about health campaigns two weeks after they had already started!

The most successful programs I have seen are the ones where a program is associated with a certain month of the year such as “No Tobacco Month” in May to encourage a fresh start for stopping smoking, “April healthy eating”, “Smoothie June”, “Sporty July” or “November Immunization Month”. Employees come to recognize the campaigns that are coming up throughout the year.

When it comes to communication these days, there are a lot of things competing for our attention. Wellness programs need to be communicated in multiple ways if they are going to be effective. You are going to need to use emails, monthly newsletters, corporate websites and social media, posters, staff meetings, text messages, new employee orientations and many others.

Communicating and involving employee spouses and family is something that has become quite popular recently and can have a very positive impact on your program. The chances of the program being successful go way up when you target your employee’s significant others. Peer pressure from close family can be a significant driver for better engagement.

To answer the big question posed by the article title “Is there a business case for workplace wellness programs?” the simple answer to that is “yes”. Although the jury is still out in terms of it significantly affecting bottom line profits, There is much evidence and research to suggest carefully thought-out and executed wellness programs can lead to reduced absenteeism, reduced sick leave, lesser workplace accidents, injuries and an overall improvement in employee moral measured through companywide surveys and increased staff retention rates.

As a final thought, looking beyond any potential financial end gains to welfare campaigns, most organizations get involved in such practices as an overall duty of care towards their employees. This creates a sustained culture of collective responsibility with tangible benefits to both the company and the workers, it builds trust, creates stronger lasting relationships and provides an overall good feeling that is seldom found in the corporate world these days.


June 12, 2018

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