Long Term Approach to Workplace Wellness

Happy and healthy employees are critical to an organisation’s success. Driving employee engagement and productivity and reducing health care costs are the primary reasons organisations are making major investments in workplace wellness programmes and the health of their employees. However, it’s important to understand that workplace wellness is not a quick-fix solution and it is certainly not something simply achieved by a fitness tracker. The success of a workplace wellness programme depends on the design and execution of the programme and much of that is about having a long-term view and making incremental improvements.

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is approaching wellness like a series of individual lessons or one-time events. The hope is that somehow these individual wellness-focused activities will drive home the message that employee health is important. However, when activities are not a part of a larger, integrated workplace wellness strategy, they are likely to fail. Three examples of common workplace wellness mistakes are conducting health risk assessments, using incentive programmes, and relying on a third-party. What all of these have in common is that they are rolled out individually without the long-term vision or follow-up necessary for success.

Individual health assessments can be an integral part of a larger wellness programme but used in isolation, they are ineffective. Health assessments involve surveying employees about lifestyle risks such as smoking behaviour, physical inactivity, poor diet, and high-stress levels. Often the surveys are combined with a physical assessment to measure risk factors like blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight. When health assessments are used as a solitary tool, they serve to remind employees about their health risks but do not give them the tools or resources to change their lifestyle.

Incentive programmes are based on a bad assumption: people will behave in rational ways if paid to do so. People are in fact not always rational and frequently do things that are in contrast to their best interests, e.g. smoking or the overconsumption of unhealthy food. Furthermore, when the incentive programme disappears, employees are likely to resume their unhealthy habits. Incentive programmes may not only be ineffective but may also lead to resentment among employees. In fact, they may even do more harm than good by promoting quick fixes as opposed to long-term progress.

Relying on someone else, for example, your health insurer or the services of a third-party health provider is not a health and wellness programme. Yes, your health insurer likely has a website with many excellent resources but directing employees to a website and expecting them to be proactive about solving their health issues isn’t going to work. Health experts, like employee assistance councillors and lifestyle coaches can be excellent resources, but again, you cannot count on employees to locate these resources themselves when they need them.

A successful workplace wellness programme that will deliver long-term results includes leadership support, employee involvement, communication, and results.

Leadership support is essential for the continued promotion and success of a workplace wellness programme. Leaders have to champion wellness by not only promoting its importance but by also leading by example. Workplace wellness needs to be embedded in corporate culture and integrated into the organisation’s vision and purpose. A culture of health and wellness is about more than healthy food options and annual 10K runs. To create a wellness culture a company needs to offer things like flexible work schedules, social support, a healthy physical environment, and enforce health promotion policies and initiatives.

Employee involvement in the company’s wellness philosophy and initiatives is key to adoption. A programme imposed on workers will not be as effective as one that employees have ownership of. True employee engagement in workplace wellness will be achieved when employees own the programme, understand the benefits, and can provide meaningful contributions on an ongoing basis. Soliciting employee input through focus groups, surveys, and wellness committees will engage employees and help the company spend money where it is wanted and needed.

Strategic communication is a core part of an effective workplace wellness programme. Clear messages about what the programme entails, how it works, its benefits, and how to get involved will drive employee engagement and help overcome barriers to participation. To be most effective, communications should be tailored to the target market, frequent, varied, and multichannel. Like any well-crafted sales and marketing messages, you want wellness communications to stand out.

Measuring results is key to assessing which workplace wellness initiatives are working well (and which are working not-so-well). Evaluating success requires that you have baseline data at the start of a programme to measure results against and to keep the company accountable over time. Well-designed and well-implemented programmes will produce a positive return on investment and significant improvements in employee health [1]. In evaluating the success of the programme, an organisation should also look at engagement, morale, retention, and customer loyalty. All of these are positively influenced by a healthy organisation.

Workplace wellness is very broad and can be difficult to understand. As a result, many organisations end up with wellness solutions that are one-size-fits-all and largely ineffective. Understanding workplace wellness and the critical success factors isn’t easy, but a strategically planned and implemented wellness programme will yield significant rewards for the employees and the company.

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[1] https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/abs/10.1377/hlthaff.2009.0626