Workplace wellness programs: Do they work?

April 18, 201610:20 am885 views

In recent years, the standing desk has become a trendy workplace accessory — one that seems to breed inexplicably overnight.

One day Phil from the IT helpdesk has one … and then suddenly, the entire office is hopping from foot to foot while chatting on the phone to a client.

But do they really improve our health, or make us more productive? Some studies indicate they do have benefits, but others are more sceptical.

In Australian workplaces, wellness initiatives are becoming a commonplace phenomenon.

And while standing desks, office yoga classes and gym memberships are all nice things to have on offer at work, the jury is still out on whether they actually make us healthier, or better at our jobs.

A growing body of research actually suggests that without a targeted and well thought out approach, workplace wellness initiatives often fail to yield results.

But conversely, ignoring employee health costs money too.

The cost of absenteeism in Australia is estimated at $7 billion each year, while presenteeism — defined as not fully functioning at work because of a medical condition — was recently estimated to cost the economy more than $34 billion a year.

Quitting smoking amid toxic fumes at work?

Studies have shown that properly designed wellness programs can deliver significant benefits, with anaverage rate of return of between 2:1 and 5:1 for every dollar spent.

Encouragingly, a 2014 report by Buck Consultants found that about 47 per cent of companies in Australia offered some kind of health promotion service to employees — but only about half of those had measured, specific outcomes.

Occupational physician Niki Ellis said the Australian approach to workplace wellness programs was somewhat “immature”.

“There is scope for improvement here in the way investment in this area is being made,” Professor Ellis said.

Professor Ellis said while usually well-intentioned, often wellness programs both here and abroad were not very strategic.

She used an example from Harvard Professor Gloria Sorenson, a leading authority on workplace wellness programs, to illustrate her point.

“It’s my favourite story about why wellness bits and pieces, just introduced into a workplace without integrating them carefully into an overall strategy for health, is probably not going to work,” she said.

“She was running quit smoking programs in the workplace and she started to deliver those in foundries.

“And she could see the irony of her very earnestly encouraging workers to quit smoking, when all around them were these toxic fumes and heat.”

The health benefits the workers might have received from quitting smoking were negated by the very environment they were working in.

“You can’t really expect workers to be anything other than a bit sceptical when you’re doing that in a hazardous working environment,” she said.

Programs need to be evidence based

Workplace safety consultant Kevin Jones said in recent years Australian employers had come a long way in making workplaces as safe as possible — and then the focus had shifted to general health and wellness.

He said companies did this in the hope that it would further reduce illnesses and injuries costs, but he was not convinced there was a link.

It sounds like a good idea, it went on for a couple of years, it cost thousands of dollars. But nobody then said, ‘well, has it achieved the aim that we had?’

Kevin Jones

Mr Jones said on one construction site he had visited, each morning the company held warm-up exercises for employees, which included stretches and push-ups.

The intention was to reduce the severity of any sprains and strains the workers might experience during the course of the day, because they had warmed up their bodies.

“It was never evaluated,” Mr Jones said. “It sounds like a good idea, it went on for a couple of years, it cost thousands of dollars. But nobody then said, ‘well, has it achieved the aim that we had?'”

Mr Jones said that particular program had actually gone on to be used in other workplaces, “but still with no proof that it actually does what it’s [saying]”.

“I think that we have to be really careful in the wellness sector … that we don’t put money into things that sound good, but that don’t have the outcomes that we’ve been promised,” he said.

Honest Tea: a case study

In the United States, where health insurance for staff is often paid for by employers, the push to identify workplace wellness initiatives that deliver results is more established than in Australia.

A 2015 report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that the best corporate wellness programs addressed both the individual risk factors affecting employees’ health, and the organisational factors that helped or hindered employees’ efforts to reduce those risks.

It found the strongest programs created a culture of health, intertwining individual health promotion efforts with the overall company goals and objectives.

The best programs were also created in consultation with staff.

Honest Tea, an organic drink company based in Bethesda, Maryland, was used as a case study in the report.

The company’s headquarters were deliberately placed next to biking and walking trails to encourage physical activity, and staff were given access to a wellness coach who gave advice on diet, weight management, and quitting smoking.

Initially the company also offered yoga and meditation classes at work, but participation was low.

By polling their staff, who were primarily quite young, the company found out that their employees wanted more intense activities. As a result, Honest Tea now offers boot camp workouts and rock climbing events, and participation exceeds 50 per cent.

For Honest Tea — a company founded on principles of health — these investments, among others, help maintain a corporate culture and keep employees healthy.

‘Respect for workers’ should be core

Mr Jones said there was also a place for wellness initiatives such as corporate team challenges, which had the potential to reinforce positive relationships in a workplace.

“But that workplace has to have a positive relationship already,” he said.

“Some of the wellness initiatives — the marathons, the dragon boat racing — can fall over if the relationship is not supportive.

“It can be seen almost as a placebo. ‘Here, we look like we’re doing wellness. But we’re really not fixing the problems.'”

Mr Jones said ultimately, to improve staff wellness, employers needed to make health and safety part of the day-to-day conversation.

“In that way you can pick up whether somebody’s feeling depressed,” he said.

“You can pick up whether there’s an incident that’s occurred somewhere that hasn’t been reported but should be looked at.

“It sounds like a fluffy recommendation, but it’s the one that’s at the core of all this: respect for workers.”

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