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Workplace Wellness Programs: Designing a Healthy Proposition for Employees

 
By Angela Pirisi
 
Given that many of us spend one-third of our day working, employers and employees have become acutely aware that the workplace can significant­ly affect our health and well-being. According to a 2012 study by Sun Life Financial, 80% of Canadian employees believe that employers play a role in helping them to manage stress and promote well-being. Meanwhile, 
92% of employers recognize that employee health affects overall corpo­rate performance.
 
“Employers are recognizing that workplace wellness is an opportunity to influence cost trends and engage employees,” says Jennifer Elia, AVP for Health and Wellness at Sun Life Financial. “So health and wellness  programs need to be part of their planning, part of their business objectives and part of their dialogue with employees.” Many employees, particularly younger job candidates, expect employers to offer health and wellness programs. When millennials speak with prospective employers, they’re enquiring about a healthy workplace culture, flexible hours and health coverage, says Elia.
 
Creating a program that works
 
So what defines a good wellness program, and how do you create one? Do you measure success by healthcare cost savings and reduced absenteeism, or by morale, loyalty and employee retention? The evidence to date is mixed. Some figures reveal that a fair number of programs don’t meet objec­tives in terms of employee health or reducing health benefit costs and absenteeism. However, a U.S. meta-analysis did show an estimated med­ical cost savings of $3.27 and a $2.73 drop in absenteeism for every dollar spent on wellness programs. Find­ings from the Sun Life-Ivey Canadian Wellness ROI Study (2012) showed that wellness programs save about 1.5 to 1.7 days in absenteeism per worker over 12 months, or an estimated $251 CAD per employee per year in savings. 
 
But what it comes down to is that em­ployers need to build on the proposition that caring about employee health is the right thing to do, says Elia. Suc­cessful workplace wellness programs include a number of vital components and best practices, such as health risk assessment and screening, individually tailored health targets, leadership and a workplace culture that models healthy living. Here is how these and other key elements lay the groundwork for effec­tive workplace wellness plans.
 
Understand your employee population: The first step is to learn about your employee population and decide which health risks you would benefit most from targeting. “Employers are finding that when they shift the focus to a chronic disease management model, one that encompasses health risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose, they get a much better payback on the program,” says Ted Kyle, a health policy consultant and founder of ConscienHealth in Pittsburgh. Best prac­tices combine a health risk assessment, a self-reported tool to measure different health dimensions and a screening clinic, says Elia. This creates a baseline from which to measure your impact.
 
Take stock of existing resources: Have a close look at what wellness ini­tiatives you already provide—how are you packaging and promoting them so employees know they’re available and use them, and you derive maximum value? Maybe there’s a fitness centre or employee lounge on site, which you can capitalize on to launch or expand wellness initiatives. 
 
Communicate with employees: A tailored communications plan is key, says Elia. For example, factory workers may need information delivered on paper, such as posters, whereas for office work­ers, communications via online tools and social media are often more appropriate. If your organization is offering lunchtime yoga classes, a consulting dietitian or a fitness app, you have to make sure employees know about them.
 
Individualize program goals: Cookie-cutter programs don’t work very well. Solutions need to be more customized to meet the needs of em­ployees with certain health risk factors. One size doesn’t fit all, especially when it comes to weight and obesity management, says Kyle. People have enough reasons and motivation to lose weight, but setting arbitrary weight goals for employees—like asking someone with a BMI of 40 to reach a target of 25—can be demeaning and discouraging, he says. 
 
Provide evidence-based tools: Employers should give employees the means to make changes and meet health targets, says Kyle. In a national U.S. online survey of close to 8,000 employees, Kyle examined gaps in workplace wellness programs that targeted obesity. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (59%) reported that, despite setting weight-loss targets for employees, employers didn’t cover many evidence-based treatments for obesity, such as fitness training, dieti­tians, medical weight loss clinics, weight loss surgery and weight-loss drugs.
 
Use appropriate incentives: Moti­vating employees is important, which means offering the right incentives. “Employers have an opportunity to be creative, such as offering a prize draw—an iPad, a paid day off? Ask yourself what’s at your disposal and within your budget. Whatever you offer needs to be compelling,” says Elia. A caveat is not to incentivize targets, but to reward employees for participation.
 
Give employees control: Wellness programs have to be optional. Some American companies require employees to participate and penalize them if they don’t; that is, they don’t qualify for full medical benefits. This coercive approach tends to breed bad will instead of trust and loyalty. Employees need to be in control from the start—they must give consent for health screening. And if they agree to that, they should be able to determine what follow-up programs to pursue from available options.
 
Model a healthy culture: The most important thing you can do to pro­mote employee wellness is to develop a genuine culture of health, where everyone from the top down models a healthy lifestyle and it’s a visible priority, says Kyle. A healthy work environment is one factor within employers’ control. A review of 47 studies (Am J Prev Med 2009;37(4):340–357) that examined workplace interventions aimed either at weight control, weight loss or general health promotion and risk reduction found that many achieved only a mod­est decrease in weight (2.8 pounds) at six to 12 month follow-up. The authors noted that many of the studies focused on healthy eating, physical activity or both, but few of them modified the work environment to help employees achieve goals. Providing fitness oppor­tunities during the day and changing the cafeteria menu are more effective than asking people to aim for a number on the scale, Kyle explains.
 
A shining example of a workplace wellness program is Google. “They’ve taken a behavioural economics approach to promoting health in the workplace,” says Kyle. “Their intellec­tual capital is very important to them, so they’re finding ways to keep em­ployees healthy and engaged.” At its California headquarters, Google offers everything from on-site fitness classes and massage therapy to a hair salon and dry cleaning. Meanwhile, Toronto East General Hospital boasts a com­prehensive, award-winning wellness program rooted in fitness class offer­ings, but also includes art, meditation, shiatsu and a mental health strategy. 
 
 At the end of the day, if a program is done right, and offered for the right reasons, everyone wins. “The workplace is in a unique position to remove some of the most common barriers to making healthy lifestyle changes: cost, time and motivation,” says Elia. “Employers really have it in their court to be able to help employees address each of those barriers—and when they do, the bene­fits of prevention will follow.”