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What does the ideal wellness program look like? Does it even exist?

More employers are turning to workplace wellness programs to help control employee benefits costs, rising insurance premiums and help attract and retain top employees. However, there has been mixed research on whether such an investment pay off in the long term for both employers and employees.

Traditional corporate wellness programs do not extend beyond traditional ‘health and safety’ and ‘occupational health’ schemes and don’t always effectively tackle ‘lifestyle’ risks associated with modern work. If unaware, this could play a big risk factor in developing long term conditions (LTCs) such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, anxiety and depression.

Staff bringing long term conditions into the workplace

LTCs or ‘chronic’ diseases now account for the bulk of health spend and time off work in developed nations. According to the King's Fund, LTCs now account for 50% of all primary care appointments in the UK and 70% of all hospital admissions.

Nonetheless, organisation’s management recognises those conditions but they feel responsibility sits with the individual. Sadly, this becomes a very costly error. Why? Most of us spend between a third and a half of our waking lives at work - the habits we adopt are all directly shaped by lives at work and thus by our employer.

To fix this, employers must recognise the influence on staff health and their ability to affect change.That way they would have a good chance of success.

“Physical activity” - a phobia heavy word for many employees

The truth is that you do not need to be an athlete or a gym bunny to meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity.

The recommendation for physical activity is 150 minutes of moderate physical activity such as brisk walking or pushing a lawn mower a week. 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 that puts others off many employees.

Unfortunately, many people have deep seated negative associations with sport, often stemming from childhood. Physical activity interventions which stand the best chance of widespread uptake would not have to involve the following:

  • Performing in front of others
  • Having a special skills set (running, throwing, kicking etc)
  • Special clothes and changing in front of others (lycra)
  • Having free time (often excuse)

Expect advice: The best wellness initiatives are those that can habitually integrated into the working week and which bring reinforcing additional benefits such as time savings.

3/ Health checks - “the more, the merrier”

Unless deployed selectively health checks can do more harm than good. How? Health screening can cause serious unintended harms. For example, 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 whole group unless the benefits outweigh the risks. In the context of corporate wellness, it is vital that this calculation is made for the individual in mind rather that the business.

Prerequisites for designing the perfect wellness program

With the right corporate wellness program employees can feel productive, engaged, and happy, saving employers time and money.  Addressing  common mistakes can contribute to building an effective and sustainable program. However, this may be insufficient.

JOEM’s research found that the difference between the makers or breakers is “a combination of good design built on behavior change theory, effective implementation using evidence-based practices, and credible measurement and evaluation.” Unfortunately not all programs meet those prerequisites.

The big health authorities, including NICE in the UK, calculate that a well designed and operated wellness program will reduce sick days by up to 30%. Despite all the negative press around whether workplace wellness programs actually work,  Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found the winners of the Koop National Health Awards could have the best wellness programs in place. They outperformed the stock market by a factor of 3:1 from 2000-2014.

Koops award winners in the study included Johnson & Johnson, The Volvo Group, FedEx and Citibank. In the 14-year period tracked, Koop Award winners’ stock values appreciated by 325% compared with the market average appreciation of 105%.

One organisation - StepJockey - had developed the idea of corporate wellness around evidence based practices, behaviour change, credible measurement and evaluation. StepJockey fights sedentary behaviour in multi-storey offices by quickly and simply promoting habitual stair use among all staff.

The concept of StepJockey is solidly evidence based and used by corporate wellness specialists worldwide to complement and enhance wider corporate wellness programmes. Through unique smart signs and gamification platform this enables employers to make their offices visibly healthier and more active without the need for large-scale capital investment.

Having the right wellbeing program can be crucial for an organisation as it impact its bottom line. To get the most out of these initiatives, senior management would need to adapt to the coming changes, lead by example and address the common mistakes in corporate wellness. As evidence shows, wellness companies  that deliver comprehensive evidence based practices, behaviour change and tangible results will be the ones to flourish in the future.