Just how valuable is corporate wellness?

According to a new study by Fidelity Investments and The National Business Group on Health, US employers spent an average of $693 per employee on wellness-based incentives this year, a 17 percent increase on the previous year.

Just how valuable is corporate wellness

Brian Marcotte, CEO of National Business Group on Health, which includes American Express, Boeing and JPMorgan Chase among its membership said: “We expect to see employers continue to expand and evolve their wellness offerings.” So why are corporations investing so much more in staff wellness?

Research increasingly shows that an unhealthy workforce has a severe adverse impact on productivity whilst a healthy workforce brings economic benefit. It is therefore in the company’s own best interests to increase awareness of wellness and introduce practices that harvest a corporate culture of health improvement.

In a previous article, I talked about the importance of a happy and motivated workforce. The emerging discipline of Health and Productivity Management has shown that health and productivity are “inextricably linked” and that a healthy workforce leads to a healthy bottom line. This shows that health, happiness, and productivity at work are all related concepts and that companies should take care to foster all three.

A great deal of being happy taps directly into physical and mental wellbeing because it leaves individuals feeling better equipped to overcome obstacles. Having a happy and healthy workforce prevents absenteeism which costs the company in lost revenue, boosts productivity which has a knock-on effect for revenue streams and enhances employee morale providing them with higher job satisfaction making the retention of key and talented staff much easier.

During 2014, it was estimated that 11.3 million days of work were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety – an average of 23 days per person which equates to approximately 10% of the working year. These absentees result in delayed projects, failure to meet key milestones and deadlines, postponed product launches and profit loss. Not to mention covering staff being overworked or temporary staff putting an additional burden on staffing budgets.

In the sports industry today, so much emphasis is put on performance that in-between matches, players have a whole army of health and wellness specialists assigned to deliver massage rosters, relaxation techniques, physician routines, exercise programmes, healthy eating plans and so on and so forth.

This is in stark contrast to 40 years ago when football players might have enjoyed a cigarette and a porkpie at half time and a pint down the pub post-match.

The intense health and wellness programmes that professional athletes have become accustomed to today are designed for one thing and one thing only, to put them in peak physical and mental condition and if you follow sports you understand that this is an absolute necessity if athletes are serious about competing.

Why then would we assume office staff are any different? Don’t they also need to be in peak condition in order to deliver their best results? True, there is little physical exertion in an office environment, but wouldn’t it be considered fantastically naïve to assume that staff can deliver peak performance when they’re mentally drained and exhausted?

A manager might think squeezing every minute of working time into reading one more contract, preparing one more presentation or drafting one more company policy might be for the betterment of the company. But how about using an hour or two of that time to take your team over the park for a dual-purpose goal of staff bonding and fitness exercise followed by a visit to the spa instead?

I bet your bottom dollar that you’d notice a spike in productivity the following day from an enthused, happy and reinvigorated workforce motivated to deliver. Wouldn’t you if your boss did the same for you?

This isn’t opinion talking, its biology, actually, it’s scientific fact – everyone functions much better when they’re in good shape and well rested. Concentration levels are higher, output is stronger, creativity more inspired.

Dr Roger Sahoury, author of Gladiator’s Guide to Corporate Health & Wealth said that when a team understands how much a company cares about each individual person, employees will work harder and be more dedicated.

Now contrast that with the boss who failed to take time out for his employees to exercise and relax. Staff feel undervalued and underwhelmed, they become exposed to high levels of stress, they become irritable and frustrated, the tension gets cranked up, conflicts arise and productivity spirals into that big metaphorical sinkhole.

This theorising is all well and good of course, but what can companies do to better enhance health and wellness in the workplace? Obvious examples include gym memberships, private healthcare plans and purchasing healthy foods for office staff but corporations are finding new and innovative practices all the time.

Today corporations are experimenting with competitions, fitness bonding exercises, gift card distribution, flexible working and increased holiday allowance incentives in order to boost employee participation in wellness programmes. The scope is wider ranging than ever before as well with smoking cessation, weight loss/obesity prevention, diabetes monitoring, blood pressure/cholesterol management, sleep hygiene, and stress management all nestling under the wing of corporate wellness programmes.

Much like any office culture, what works for one company might not necessarily work for another. Be imaginative, get an understanding of your staff by engaging with them on the changes or initiatives they would like to see and what kind of wellness offerings would incentivise them.

At this stage you might be thinking “sounds good, but how much is this going to cost me?” The short answer is, nothing – if you do it right. In fact, corporate wellness programmes, especially in countries and/or entities where corporations pay health insurance premiums for employees, have discovered that corporate wellness programmes save them money.

A six-year study by the health insurance company Humana and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business found that happy employees not only perform better, but they cost less.

A report by the Department of Health and Human Services in the US revealed that healthcare costs decreased by up to 55% at worksites where exercise programmes were components of their wellness programmes. Further, short-term sickness leave was reduced and, again, productivity increased.

Psychotherapist Robert Stewart, who works with businesses on staff wellbeing, says that exercise helps with the production of endorphins and serotonin, the body’s happiness hormones assisting the regulation of metabolism, sleep, concentration and motivation.

Rather than thinking exclusively about the initial upfront or running costs, another component corporations need to take into account is the shifting attitudes of staff towards their employment package.

Increasingly key and skilled staff are looking towards the benefits being offered by a prospective employer rather than mere basic salary. This is an opportunity for corporations because a company offering a good benefits package and reasonable remuneration sends a positive message, it says “we care about you”, whereas a lack of benefits and a more generous remuneration only says “we want to buy you,” which is a colder and less attractive proposition.

Another aspect to consider when it comes to budgeting for corporate wellness programmes is the return investment. In much the same way you would look at the return investment for the purchase of new office equipment or new staff, if investment in employee wellness programmes has a positive overall effect on productivity and revenue, it is an investment worth making.

It came to the attention of Helena Mann, operations manager at Crunch Accounting, that her colleagues were tied to their desks eating junk food from local takeaway restaurants. She inspired the company to introduce free muesli and granary toast breakfasts in a communal area with sofas to encourage socialising. Mann said that the costs are around £200 per month but that the benefit outweighs the cost: “It gives the start of a day a more relaxed feel – rather than checking your emails while trying to spoon cereal into your mouth, you’re sat away from your desk having a nice chat with your colleagues. I think starting the day like this does increase productivity.”

In another example, Jane Michell, founder of the fitness and weight loss programme Jane Plan, has been distributing fitness trackers to her staff. She instigated a walk-to-work initiative which her team met with startling enthusiasm. “One member of the team even walked from Stratford to Liverpool Street, which is 7.4 miles,” says Michell. Cycling to work is a similar initiative that could inspire staff to embrace a healthier lifestyle.

Another aspect to consider is future proofing against legislation. If you think about how health and safety legislation has been implemented over the past few decades, is it so farfetched to assume that corporate wellness won’t also become enforced by governments where companies refuse to play ball of their own accord? For example, an increasing number of studies reveal the negative impacts on health caused by workplace sedentary settings which directly contributes to obesity epidemics, meaning there is more and more pressure on governments to legislate towards corporate wellness practices.

In 2013, a survey by Mind found that 60% of workers said they’d feel more motivated if their employer took action to support their mental wellbeing. One of the issues companies face with implementing wellness programmes is that they have little to no experience of such programmes and more importantly, no long-term strategy for their success.

With this in mind, I have assembled a nine-point plan to keep in mind for anyone designing a corporate wellness programme:

  • Accessibility – due to longer working hours and the benefits of team bonding, any exercise component of the wellness programme needs to be preferably onsite or as near to the office as possible as that’s where the majority of your employee’s spend their time.
  • Strategy – there is no use introducing practises that do not engage, motivate or incentivise staff because much of corporate wellness is about voluntary participation.
  • Variety – tapping into strategy above, you need to acknowledge that different staff will be engaged by different activities, some prefer yoga to the gym, others running to cycling etc. Chop it up, swish it around and think about a customised programme tailored specifically for your workforce.
  • Time – a wellness mentality isn’t an overnight band aid but a behaviour change that requires patience and commitment. Any successful programme needs time to evolve and become intertwined into the fabric of the company culture.
  • Environment – if you have a sugary drinks vendor, get rid of it and replace it with a bowl of fruit in reception or in the board room etc.
  • Education – wellness isn’t just about physical exertion and relaxation, it’s a lifestyle that requires educational input. Consider lunchtime seminars addressing issues such as work-life balance, weight loss initiatives and the exchange of healthy cooking recipes etc.
  • Safety – health and safety initiatives are now largely governed by legislation but take another look at it, brush up and think about how it can work cohesively with your corporate wellness programme.
  • Assistance – don’t make the mistake of focusing everything around the physical and neglecting the mental or the emotional. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are a good way of providing staff with support when they are in a difficult emotional situation.
  • Screenings – a bit of tricky one because health screenings require the collection of personal data which could conflict with Data Protection laws, consult your legal team on measures of how this data is stored and used. Otherwise, researchers recommend making screenings available on a voluntary basis because they help educate employees about their own health and empower them to set goals for making improvements. There are a number of incentives to encourage volunteering e.g. an additional day of vacation.
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