A well executed corporate wellness programme can make a huge difference to a modern business. The best initiatives boost corporate productivity, reputation and staff morale while reducing healthcare costs and a range of associated overheads.
Perhaps the best evidence for this comes from a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. It found that winners of the Koop National Health Awards for workplace health outperformed the stock market by a factor of 3:1 from 2000-2014.
But getting corporate wellness right is no easy task. For every business that gets it right dozens fail. Not only does this result in valuable resource being wasted but it undermines confidence among managers and staff in the value of preventive health and wellness more generally - something that has ramifications for society as a whole.
So what are the most common mistakes corporates make when implementing corporate wellness programmes? A full list would run to many pages but the evidence suggests that the following four misconceptions are important to overcome:
1/ “It’s not us, it’s them. Staff bring their health problems into the workplace”
This is probably the single biggest obstacle to getting a corporate wellness programme right. The company’s leadership team knows that staff health is an issue but - deep down - they feel responsibility sits elsewhere.
This is a huge mistake. In many modern businesses staff spend the bulk of their waking hours at work. What they eat and drink, the physical activity they achieve and the habits they adopt are all shaped by their employer and the buildings they work in.
Companies which accept they play a direct role in shaping the health of their staff have a much greater chance of success. They recognise their power and influence and therefore their ability to affect change. Those that don’t will struggle.
2/ “Physical activity is just another word for sports”
Wrong. You do not need to be an athlete or a gym bunny to meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity.
The minimum recommendation for physical activity is 150 minutes of moderate physical activity such as brisk walking. Vigorous physical activity such as jogging or stair climbing counts twice, meaning you can get away with 75 minutes a week.
The problem with equating physical activity with sport is not just that it’s wrong but it puts many people off. Large numbers of us have deep seated negative associations with sport, often stemming from childhood. Interventions which stand the best chance of widespread uptake will not involve:
Performing in front of others
Having a special skills set (running, throwing, kicking etc)
Special clothes and changing in front of others
Putting aside free time
Conversely, the best physical activity interventions are those that can be habitually integrated into the working week and which reinforce additional benefits such as time savings. Active commuting, stair climbing and walking meetings are great examples.
3/ “Health checks - the more the merrier”
Health checks are not a panacea. Screening staff for health problems has a ‘common sense’ appeal but unless deployed selectively can do more harm than good.
Health screening can cause serious unintended harms. Such harms may relate to the intervention itself (xrays, blood infections etc) or, more commonly, by producing false positives that lead to unnecessary stress, investigation and treatments.
The golden rule in health screening is that a test should never be given to a population group unless it can clearly be shown that the benefits outweigh the risks.
And in the context of corporate wellness, it is vital that calculation is made with the individual in mind and not the business.
4. “If we offer the right benefits we don’t need to worry about our offices too much”
Think again! Modern white collar employees - and that’s most of us - spend the vast bulk of our time in the office and our behaviours are directly shaped by them.
If your offices offer sugary snacks on every floor don’t be surprised if people eat too much of them. If your offices offer free car-parking don’t be surprised if people drive, rather than travel actively to work. And if your offices hide the entrances to the stairs don’t be surprised if your staff waste up to 15 minutes a day hanging round the lift lobbies rather than getting a short burst of exercise on the way to their desk.
A huge amount of academic work shows how important our environment is in shaping our habits and behaviours, and wellness executives ignore it at their peril.
New healthy office certification schemes such as the WELL Standard and the free Fitwel office certification scheme are helping forward thinking businesses put this right. These standards should be the starting point for all corporate wellness executives. Aferall, if your own house is not in order no amount of health insurance is going to put it right.
Improving physical activity in the workplace should always be considered as part of a more comprehensive workplace health programme. It’s key to building a ‘culture of health’ within any business. Read our full evidence-based guide to corporate wellness here.
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