Mutually advantageous: corporate wellness programmes in the US
November 2015 | FEATURE | BOARDROOM INTELLIGENCE
Financier Worldwide Magazine
‘Wellness at work is the key to higher productivity’ states the universal corporate mantra. In the US, this belief is certainly part of the workplace landscape, if the prevalence of corporate wellness programmes is anything to go by.
The big selling point of a corporate wellness programme of course is that it is mutually advantageous. For the employer, it results in a workforce that is healthy and productive. For the employee, it represents an effective support network, one of the most valuable benefits an organisation can offer to its employees.
From state-to-state, US corporate wellness programmes have many similarities as well as a multitude of differences. However, their core function, as characterised by the Harvard Business Review, is to be “an organized, employer-sponsored program that is designed to support employees (and, sometimes, their families) as they adopt and sustain behaviours that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the organization’s bottom line”.
By way of a second opinion, national wellness services provider TotalWellness describes corporate wellness programmes as providing a range of benefits, including a healthier workforce that is more productive and uses fewer sick days, engaged employees who feel valued by their employer, the attraction of talented millennials who want more from a workplace than traditional benefits, cheaper insurance costs from a company standpoint, and a positive company culture where work and lifestyle are both valued.
Whether or not they have acquired any extra prominence since the election of president Obama and the advent of Obamacare, all in all, the overriding corporate wellness programme ethos in the US would appear to be resplendent with benefits – a win-win scenario for all concerned.
Types of wellness programme
Corporate wellness programmes, explains diet, nutrition and fitness tips website livestrong.com, are often offered in partnership with health insurance companies, and many companies contract with businesses that specialise in designing, implementing and operating such programmes. Practically speaking, companies seek to create a wellness culture through activities, events and online components that encourage employees to track their progress. Workers may choose to get involved of their own volition, but in many cases companies usually offer incentives for participation.
Efficacious examples of corporate wellness in action include the programme introduced by SAS, an international software company located in North Carolina, which offers its employees a wellness programme built around its Recreation and Fitness Center (RFC). The SAS RFC is open to all SAS employees, as well as retirees and family members. The wellness programme incorporates health checks, smoking cessation, rewards for fitness accomplishments, and participation in leisure time activities.
Likewise, the University of Alaska (UA) Health in Action wellness programme, run in partnership with Wellness Initiatives Network for Alaska, gives university employees the opportunity to participate in health screenings, fitness events, health seminars, health coaching, wellness breaks and online health tracking. The university also encourages employees to complete a personal wellness profile to identify health concerns and guide their participation in on-site health and wellness activities.
The award-winning wellness programme run by financial services company Nelnet, which secured the Well WorkPlace Award for wellness excellence from the Wellness Council of America, is often held up as one of the finest examples of how a corporate wellness program can create a culture which results in healthy, happy and high performing individuals. Wellness, Nelnet advises, is to do with much more than just physical health, it also incorporates all areas of well-being – the physical, the financial, the professional and the personal – into a comprehensive, holistic wellness program that is ultimately geared up to support the journey toward total well-being at work and at home.
SAS, UA and Nelnet focus their workplace wellness programmes on creating a healthy workplace in which employees are encouraged to take charge of their physical and mental health, while management adopt a holistic approach to worker health that includes workplace safety, a supportive environment, employee empowerment, and the implementation of policies such as requiring healthy food choices in vending machines and at workplace events.
Advantages of a corporate wellness programme
What, then, are the main advantages for companies that choose to implement a comprehensive and strategic corporate wellness programme? “The advantage that an organisation gleans from an employee wellness programme is directly correlated to the strategic design,” says Brad Cooper, chief executive officer of US Corporate Wellness. “If truly comprehensive and strategic, then the organisation is likely to see enhancement in areas ranging from sick time to turnover, medical and disability costs.”
As well as the beneficial outcomes garnered by employers, Mr Cooper points out that perhaps the most significant benefit of an effective wellness programme strategy is the impact it can have on improving the lives of employees. “We’ve historically looked at wellness programmes as an employer benefit, but if done right, a wellness programme will improve the lives of the employees in a variety of areas. When that happens, the employer obviously benefits in terms of improved morale, presenteeism, teamwork and more,” he says.
Allowing both the employee and the company to achieve their personal and professional goals is what Michael Port, founder and CEO of Corporate Wellness Solutions LLC, considers the archetypal aim of a corporate wellness programme. “Employees are experiencing a dramatic increase in stress levels in the workplace and wellness programmes are specifically targeted to address this issue,” says Mr Port. “The most valuable asset to any company is each employee, and wellness programmes are proven to increase both the physical and mental state of employees, which increases productivity, in turn increasing company profits.”
Once a wellness programme is up and running, there are numerous ways in which a company can gauge the success (or otherwise) of its healthy workplace initiatives. First and foremost, there is a requirement to establish whether or not the programme is working or if a rethink is needed. If the former, any suggestion that the company has introduced the wellness programme as a good-looking extra rather than a business imperative can be put to bed, for the time being at least.
“Most companies gauge the success of a wellness programme by the participation rate,” says Mr Port. “They also create reasonable expectations and milestones as an effective assessment tool. Early markers of success should be focused on how well the employees are engaging in the wellness programme. In fact, employee participation in wellness programmes are usually well above 40 percent within the first month of implementation. Employee wellness programmes are viewed as a great retention motivator and are also used to attract top talent because it shows current and prospective employees that you care about their all over well-being.”
For Alan Kohll, president and founder of TotalWellness, how one determines success depends on the stated goals of the particular wellness programme and the culture of the company concerned. “Wellness can be measured in a variety of ways. We tell our clients to think outside the box when it comes to really proving their success. There are a few ways to do this including measuring engagement, looking at abstract metrics (such as the number of sick days taken, comparing health metrics year to year, and looking at productivity as a whole,” he says.
While generic or scarlet letter types of wellness programmes are unlikely to produce positive outcomes or meaningful levels of engagement, if an effective strategy is put in place, an organisation’s wellness programme can potentially become the most valuable benefit offered to employees. “If an individual was not previously exercising and adds just a minimal amount of exercise into his or her life on a consistent basis, there are a multitude of benefits,” says Mr Cooper. “Stress is reduced, food choices improve, relationships are enhanced... even the use of credit cards is reduced. An effective wellness programme can improve an individual’s life across many fronts – but only if it is done right.”
For all the advantages that a wellness programme can bring to a company, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that potential disadvantages also exist for employers and employees. Pointedly, could a well-intentioned corporate wellness programme actually end up having the opposite effect from that initially envisaged? “Some companies fall into the trap of centring their wellness programmes on incentives or disincentives,” notes Mr Kohll. “Incentives can be a positive thing when used correctly, but when used as a primary focus or as a disincentive, companies will run into trouble. Poorly used incentives can lead to negative feelings about the programme, lack of participation and only short-term motivation.”
A corporate wellness programme that is generic, accusatory, boring and impersonal is most assuredly going to fail, with employee engagement dramatically reduced and negative results the outcome. “Participation simply indicates how many people ticked the box; engagement indicates how many people actually cared,” says Mr Cooper. “Conversely, if the programme is personalised to the individual, then engagement is high and results are positive. Effective wellness programmes must include a ‘one size fits one’ approach or they are unlikely to be successful over the long-term.”
With the American healthcare system and political landscape having undergone major reforms in recent years, the future of the corporate wellness programme in the US seems assured. Yet nothing can be taken for granted and ensuring that employers and employees remain engaged with the wellness programme agenda is certainly easier said than done.
To maintain workplace engagement, the programme needs to be personalised and relationship oriented. “Very few, if any, individuals will consistently engage in something that makes them feel like they’re being insulted. On the other hand, almost everyone is interested in something that will help make their life better – if it is focused on them and not just a generic approach. If they are to be successful, the future of wellness programmes must revolve around the individual and the building of meaningful relationships,” says Mr Cooper.
Also important is asking the right questions before a company even starts a programme, to really understand what people are looking for. “Take into account employees’ needs – be they financial, mental, or nutritional,” suggests Mr Kohll. “Wellness programmes will continue to become more popular, more comprehensive and more useful for employers and employees. The coming generations are unlike others. They want jobs that are fulfilling. Part of that includes working within a positive company culture that will empower them to do meaningful work.”
Perhaps the most striking indicator of a successful strategy is to ask departing employees what they will miss most about working for the company. If the answer is predominantly the same – the company’s wellness programme – the organisation knows it is on the right track.
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