The work/life balance. Wellness. These buzzwords get tossed around in offices all the time. Wellness programs exist to manage and support the physical and mental health of employees in a workplace, but are they always as effective as they seem?
Workplace wellness programs don’t work, says a 2019 study from the Journal of American Medical Association. To reach this conclusion, warehouse employees at BJ’s participated in an office wellness program. While they successfully maintained or lost weight, the following elements did not change: job performance, tenure or absenteeism, healthcare use, and overall health.
In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into workplace wellness programs, explaining the components of these programs and why they’re not effective. We’ll even include advice for workplaces that care about employees’ health and want to maximize it.
Workplace wellness programs, as the name tells you, center around wellness. What exactly is wellness and why do so many companies obsess over it these days?
UC Davis defines wellness as “an active process of becoming aware of and making choices towards a healthy and fulfilling life.”
They quote the National Wellness Institute, which refers to wellness as “a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential.” UC Davis also shares a quote from the World Health Organization and their take on wellness. That is: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmary.”
Wellness definitely relates to one’s health, it seems, and not only their physical health, but their mental health as well. UC Davis goes on to define several more types of wellness, some (not all) of which a company might incorporate into a wellness program.
Let’s discuss these Eight Types of Wellness in more detail now.
The area of spiritual wellness deals in all things spirituality. From religion to faith, meditation, yoga, and everything in between, having a sense of spiritual wellness allows you to strive for greater purpose and meaning in your life, says UC Davis. Your workplace likely wouldn’t include spiritual wellness in an office wellness program due to the private nature of spirituality.
Next, there’s social wellness. This relates to the type of social network you have and how supportive they are in your day-to-day life. Social wellness includes not just to your friends and family, but a girlfriend/boyfriend, spouse, neighbors, community members, and colleagues. Your workplace can positively or negatively influence your social wellness, at least partially. However, it’s not likely your job would have this included as a part of a wellness program.
The main component of any workplace wellness program is undoubtedly physical wellness. By avoiding illness and treating it when it arises, sleeping well, eating nutritiously, and exercising, it’s possible for most people to obtain physical wellness. Your workplace can also offer extra assistance if necessary.
Another form of wellness directly tied to your job, occupational wellness is all about your feelings on your career. Your level of happiness, enrichment, personal satisfaction, and achievement get counted here. While your job certainly dictates your level of occupational wellness, it’s not often included as part of workplace wellness programs.
Even once you finish your education at a college level, you should still pursue intellectual wellness. This covers the activities you engage in with your community as well as culturally and scholastically. For instance, if you take a class to learn new work skills through your job or even pick up a hobby or interest in your own personal time, those both better your intellectual wellness.
Like social and occupational wellness, though your job has a major part in your financial wellness, they probably don’t include it under their wellness program. To develop and maintain financial wellness, you should budget, make smart money decisions, and have an income that’s enough for you to live off and support your family.
The state of the environment affects each and every one of us. More than ever before, it’s important to incorporate environmental wellness into our lives. Whether you recycle, conserve resources, bike to work, or eat more sustainably, we can all do our part for Mother Nature.
The last element of wellness has to do with our emotions. By managing stress, controlling anger and sadness, and cultivating relaxation, self-care, and happiness when possible, we feel emotionally well-rounded. Workplaces may offer this area of wellness through their programs.
Now that we discussed the eight forms of wellness, let’s move on to workplace wellness programs themselves. The Centers for Disease Control or CDC says these programs “are a coordinated and comprehensive set of health promotion and protection strategies implemented at the worksite that includes programs, policies, benefits, environmental supports, and links to the surrounding community designed to encourage the health and safety of all employees.”
The CDC gives an example of such a program, which may include environmental wellness in selecting a workplace that’s clean and healthful. These programs also concern the health of the employees, of course, giving them the opportunity to begin or maintain a heathy lifestyle. (We have written a related article - Workplace Wellness Goals and Objective (Steps To Design a Workplace Wellness Program With Examples))
Workplace wellness certainly does have its place. Corporate Wellness Magazine says companies that offer sufficient wellness programs tend to hold onto their employees longer. This makes sense. If an employee feels like their employer really cares about their needs, then they’re more likely to stick around instead of leave for another job.
Corporate Wellness Magazine also mentions that when employees prioritize their own health and wellness, the company in turn often has to spend less money on healthcare. This can add up to significant savings for a business.
These employees also show up to work more often because they’re healthier. The publication mentions that, in some instances, the rate of absenteeism has dropped by as much as 40 percent thanks to workplace wellness programs.
Companies can also cut down on accidents and incidents, Corporate Wellness Magazine notes. That’s because the employees will have adequate sleep, manageable stress, and a good level of fitness. (We have also written a review of Leigh Stringer's book - Healthy Workplace)
All this sounds great in theory, doesn’t it? However, workplace wellness programs are often more inefficient than anything else. That’s a real shame, too, because there’s certainly some good that could come out of a workplace having a more involved role in the health of its employees. The above benefits could come true, for instance.
What stands in the way of workplace wellness? There are a handful of factors that we’ll talk about now.
You would assume that most people would care about their wellness, as it encompasses their health in the physical, mental, and emotional realms (not to mention others). Not everyone takes as good care of themselves as they should, though. Whether they don’t eat well, stay up late into the night, or exercise seldomly, they make these choices regularly.
If an employee isn’t taking care of themselves for any reason, then they’re not likely to participate in your workplace wellness program. If by chance they do join, they may not take it seriously. They then skew the results, making your wellness program look more inefficient than it may actually be.
You can’t twist someone’s arm into wanting to be healthier. Whether these employees don’t have time to prioritize their own wellness or they have some other prerogative, if they’re not even taking care of themselves, a wellness program on a company level will likely not work.
Another major hindrance that has held many companies back from succeeding with their wellness programs? No one quite knows what a good workplace wellness program should entail. Some businesses have undoubtedly cracked the code, like Google. According to a 2015 article in Mashable, Google has a People & Innovation Lab or PiLab, where staff works to improve its human resources (which the company calls People Operations). Did we mention they even have a slide for employees to get to their office?
Other brands like Zappos and Fitbit also often get acclaim for their workplace wellness programs. Still, what works for them may not work for another company. Could you imagine going into your office tomorrow and seeing your job had installed a slide? Would it fit your company culture? The answer for most companies is probably not.
That’s inherently the problem. Companies only know what isn’t working by reading studies and cautionary tales. With no blueprint to follow, they discover what might suffice by trial and error, with a lot more errors than desired.
There’s also the little matter that…well, these programs just don’t work. That’s not an opinion, either, as there are facts to back it up.
In an article on NPR from earlier this year, they shared a 2019 study from the Journal of American Medical Association that we linked you to in the intro. The study focused on the store BJ’s Wholesale Outlets. The team leading the study chose 20 BJ’s stores across the country, asking them to implement a wellness program. Up to 140 more BJ’s locations were given no such instructions. That means 160 clubs participated in the study, or about 33,000 BJ’s employees.
This time, the wellness program had clear-cut rules. First, the BJ’s employees had to take a questionnaire on their health risks. Then, they got their blood glucose and blood pressure tested as well as undergoing other health tests. Finally, they had to take classes, eight in all. In these classes, the employees learned about exercise, nutrition, and other wellness topics.
The Journal of American Medical Association followed the BJ’s employees for over a year. After 18 months had elapsed, the scientists checked in with the employees to see how the study had progressed.
The employees themselves believed they were at a better weight and were exercising regularly compared to before they had started the workplace wellness program. Employees at those BJ’s stores that didn’t participate didn’t mention any change in health or fitness levels.
When the scientists took the blood glucose and blood sugar measurements of those who did the workplace wellness program, the results were a little disappointing. The blood glucose nor the blood sugar of these employees had not gone down.
Also, employee retention didn’t appear to change for the better, nor did how well the employees did at work. Absenteeism didn’t decrease, and neither did healthcare spending for the company.
In all, it seemed like the participating BJ’s wasted their money and the employees their time.
The average employee will be at their job for exactly 13 years and two months over the course of their lifetime if they work 50 years according to PayScale. Despite that, the onus shouldn’t be entirely on a person’s job to push for that person’s optimal health.
Instead, as we mentioned before, it must come down to an employee themselves.
Perhaps, instead of spending the money on a workplace wellness program, if a company cares for an employee’s wellness so much, they can try a different approach. For instance, they may put that cash towards offering the best employee healthcare possible.
Having better healthcare can pay off in several ways. The employees may have a higher likelihood of sticking with the job if it offers unbeatable healthcare, especially if they can get a spouse or family member on the plan. Sometimes, even if an employee doesn’t like many other parts of their job, if the healthcare is good enough, they stay.
You can also reap the benefits a good workplace wellness program supposedly delivers. You know, like healthier employees that are at a lower risk of an accident because they take care of themselves well. These employees may also come to work more often because their healthcare allows them to take better care of themselves.
Speaking of taking care of themselves, the reason some employees might not practice self-care as well as they should is because they don’t have great healthcare. Perhaps they can’t afford the deductible, so they refrain from seeing a doctor, even if they’re sick or injured. If your company provides more than adequate healthcare, these employees might start using it. Thus, they could enjoy better health than they may have if they were part of a workplace wellness program.
It’s true that paying more for healthcare doesn’t do much for the company financially, at least not at first. With all the abovementioned perks, though, eventually, that money comes back to them.
Just to reiterate, at the end of the day, it is an employee’s responsibility to care for their health and, essentially, themselves. A company that’s so inclined can do its part by improving its healthcare first and then, if there’s room in the budget, introducing a smaller workplace wellness plan.
Are workplace wellness programs mandatory? Another part of the trouble with workplace wellness programs is they aren’t mandatory. An employee can refrain from participating in the program for any reason, and they don’t necessarily have to disclose that reason, either.
It would be odd and, quite frankly, uncomfortable for a company to force its employees into better health. It’s not mandatory they do so.
If you do volunteer to join a workplace wellness program, then your employer might get more directly involved with your health. For instance, anticipate that they may ask you to receive a medical exam or fill out a questionnaire related to your health. These are provisions of the program, after all. Again, while not mandatory, if you’re going to give the workplace wellness program a fair shake, you should participate fully.
Can employers demand an annual physical for employees? According to the Spiggle Law Firm, if you have yet to receive a job offer but you get asked to do a medical exam, you can refuse and be within your legal rights. Once you do receive the job offer, the employer can then legally ask you to take a medical exam. However, everyone else working at the job should have had to do the same, or else you could have a potential legal case.
If you get a job and you’ve worked at the same place for a while, there’s no reason your employer should ask you for a yearly physical. It may be different if you’re part of the office’s workplace wellness plan. Still, you can decline this exam and it shouldn’t have any consequences.
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