A Guide to Corporate Wellness Programs: Why Employee Health Matters

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Corporate wellness is no longer a semi-obscure benefit offered by a small percentage of companies. According to a study backed by Rand Corp. and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 80% of businesses with more than 50 employees feature a benefit linked to corporate wellness. These benefits are not just employee perks. Corporate wellness programs can help reduce absenteeism and increase production and employee well-being. They can also deliver a positive impact on various aspects of a business’s bottom line, such as its medical costs. For instance, wellness programs implemented at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have reduced its annual healthcare premium increase to 2.5%, a rate substantially lower than the 7% national average.

As innovations such as wearable technologies and on-site gyms become more commonplace, encouraging employees to live healthy lifestyles has become relatively easier. However, a corporate wellness program can’t succeed by merely offering options to employees. There are some hurdles to clear before a program can not only be implemented but also be effective. Yet, the benefits that potentially await both businesses and their employees can make these challenges worth overcoming.

A group of colleagues discuss the importance of implementing a wellness program.

What Is Corporate Wellness?

The growing interest in building these programs may make corporate wellness seem like a relatively new concept. However, it’s been around for a lot longer than people may realize. Johnson & Johnson’s Live for Life program, generally considered the prototypical corporate wellness program, launched in 1979. At the same time, some companies may find defining a corporate wellness program to be challenging, particularly if they’re looking to build such a program from scratch.

At their core, corporate wellness programs are employer-designed plans constructed to improve employees’ physical and mental health. Their purpose is often twofold: to encourage employees to lead a healthy lifestyle fortified by proactive health-driven choices and to help improve a company’s bottom line by lowering the impact of medical premiums and absenteeism.

While each corporate wellness program’s endgame is generally the same, employers can choose from a wide range of activities and policies to help employees achieve their goals. Some of these activities can be incentivized, such as office weight-loss competitions that offer gift cards for the top finishers. Others can be deployed to encourage long-term behavioral changes, such as supported smoking cessation programs or discounted gym memberships. Some wellness strategies encourage employees to be proactive about their own health journey, such as offering periodic health screenings or flu shots. There has also been an increased focus on incorporating mental health benefits, such as employee assistance programs (EAPs), as part of an overarching wellness strategy.

Regardless of the strategies deployed, an effective corporate wellness program can help cultivate a holistic work environment. On the business side of things, this potentially offers more than the opportunity to lower medical premiums. It can create a happy, healthy group of employees who enjoy coming to work and have less desire to seek employment elsewhere. As such, an employer who understands what corporate wellness is should consider the value of starting one.

Employee Health at a Glance

American adults are mired in an ongoing healthcare crisis. Studies indicate the country’s obesity rate is nearing 40%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 6 in 10 Americans have a chronic disease, a category that includes diabetes, chronic lung disease, and heart disease. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) indicates 47.6 million American adults experienced some form of mental illness in 2018, which equates to 1 in 5 people.

Not only do the implications of these statistics affect the individual, but they also carry negative ramifications for employers. Studies indicate that obesity-related illnesses and diseases caused U.S. healthcare costs to jump by almost 30% between 2015 and 2018. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) reports that American businesses lose billions of dollars due to workplace stress, a figure built on absenteeism, employee turnover, and lost productivity, among other metrics.

These statistics reinforce the notion that it’s in a company’s best interest to provide corporate wellness solutions to improve employee health, not only for the sake of its profitability but for each employee’s overall well-being. Fortunately, organizations can utilize several tactics to help create a culture of wellness that encourages employees to manage their health proactively.

The tactics used depend on what aspect of employee health the employer focuses on. For example, programs or activities that hone in on helping an employee’s nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits can encourage employees to work toward improved physical health. It’s also important for employers building a corporate wellness plan to integrate strategies that promote mental health. By implementing activities or programs designed to reduce employee stress and striving to build a safe work environment that fosters personal growth, employers can boost morale and enhance their team’s mental wellness.

While the approaches to helping employees with their physical or mental well-being are different, it’s important to ensure one doesn’t overshadow the other. Taking a balanced approach to employee health can help to create a holistic environment that treat employees’ needs equally, which can ultimately pay dividends from a business perspective.

Corporate Wellness Challenges Facing Businesses

Building a strategy that can promote employee wellness is a good idea, but it can also be an intimidating one for businesses that have never crafted a corporate wellness program before. An employer may face several corporate wellness challenges at the outset of plan development, hurdles that may threaten to derail the concept before it’s rolled out.

One of the key problems that employers must overcome is the cost of implementing a corporate wellness strategy. While some of the activities that can be incorporated into a wellness program are free or low-cost, such as weight-loss competitions or break-time walking groups, more elaborate elements, such as hosting a health screening or a health-related seminar, may not look cost-effective in the short term. An organization that isn’t prepared to handle the “sticker shock” of these costs may be discouraged.

Getting employees involved in various programs is another corporate wellness challenge. While employees may initially express interest and enthusiasm regarding the notion of a wellness program, this interest may be tough to sustain. This could particularly be the case if the activity is an irregular, one-time event, such as a lecture by a guest speaker. Therefore, it’s important for a business to heavily promote upcoming wellness events to keep interest from waning.

It’s also crucial to define the concrete purpose of a corporate wellness program and its activities. While a program’s goal may be to help employees improve their physical or mental health, employees may look at it in more simplistic terms. For instance, they may see something that promotes physical activity as merely a ploy to lose weight, which may be a turnoff. To combat this, it’s important that any wellness program clearly define its long-term goals of promoting and improving employee physical and mental health proactively. Doing so can help employees understand the program’s full purpose, which could help boost their interest in participating.

Benefits of Corporate Wellness Programs

There are numerous business-related benefits of corporate wellness programs, some of which can make a dent in the financial impact associated with employee stress. Numerous studies over the years indicate that wellness programs can lower rates of absenteeism. This could have a positive effect on a company’s bottom line, as the drop in cost for absenteeism and medical expenses tends to outweigh the cost of implementing a wellness program.

The biggest beneficiaries of an effective corporate wellness program are the employees, who ultimately live healthier lifestyles. Other employee-related benefits move beyond this obvious perk. For instance, a comprehensive wellness program can help educate employees about healthy lifestyle habits. While the dangers of smoking, for example, may be common knowledge, information on the benefits of skipping sugary beverages or getting a full, restful sleep may not be as widespread. A corporate wellness program can provide this kind of enlightenment to individuals, which in turn could help them make healthy lifestyle choices that could proactively defend against chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Another benefit is the potential to cultivate a culture of healthy behavior. Implementing physical activities through concepts such as a walking club or access to an on-site or nearby gym can not only encourage employees to engage in physical activity but also inspire groups of employees to perform the activities together. This organically creates an intrapersonal support system where employees can motivate each other as they collectively strive for improved health.

The long-term effects of a corporate wellness program can improve an employee’s quality of work. Studies indicate that corporate wellness programs can increase productivity by an average of 10 annual hours per employee. For companies that employ a large staff, this production increase can put a significant dent in the typical revenue lost due to stress-related issues. Even smaller companies with a limited staff can benefit here, as this bump in production could lead to more efficient growth or more effectively maintained stability.

A Look at Workplace Wellness Programs

No two workplace wellness programs are alike. While they all strive to improve employee health, the methods can vary widely. Nevertheless, if a program is shaped with care and a clearly defined purpose, it can encourage employees to live a healthier lifestyle.

There are several ways that an employer can encourage striving toward or maintaining physical well-being. One simple way is stocking a company’s vending machines with healthy snack options. A wellness program could also entail slightly more involved tactics, such as offering a gym membership. Additionally, hosting on-site nutrition workshops or offering free health screenings can help employees develop a thorough understanding of their current health, complete with tips and strategies aimed to help them make improved lifestyle choices.

Likewise, numerous tactics can help employees reduce stress levels and improve their mental well-being. For example, a wellness program can include simple activities, such as meditation sessions or breathing exercises, or something more elaborate, such as designating a quiet room for rest or even on-site naps. In some cases, employers can combine activities that promote physical and mental health. For example, stepping away from a desk and going for a walk can help alleviate stress.

While employers can deploy some components of a wellness program via standalone activities, they must integrate others into established company policies. Often, a company can roll these policies into its benefit package such as by offering free access to an EAP or making sure employees are fully utilizing their vacation days.

For companies building a workplace wellness program for the first time, it can be important to implement activities that focus on different aspects of an individual’s well-being. Not doing so could make it appear as if the employer is singling out a particular group of employees, which could lead to disinterest or even disdain for the program.

Innovative Health and Fitness Ideas

Integrating fitness as part of a corporate wellness program can have positive results in individual and team-based performance. Just like other aspects of business operation, this integration is an evolving process featuring new ways to reach traditional goals. Companies can utilize numerous innovative health and fitness ideas to help encourage employees to increase their physical activity.

Much of this innovation stems from technological advances. Arguably, the most prominent of these innovations is the advent of wearable tech items, such as the wireless fitness tracker Fitbit or the tech-driven footwear Energysole. These devices can help employees track a wide range of health-related metrics, such as heart rate, blood pressure, or activity levels. Some of these devices use algorithms to suggest ways to modify behaviors to optimize health. Some of this wearable tech can even be used for protection, in the form of exoskeletons designed to reduce physical strain that could incur with physical labor. While this may sound like science fiction, these devices have yielded positive results: Employees at the automotive company Audi utilized exoskeletons as part of a pilot program, and data derived from the devices demonstrated 20% to 30% less strain on back muscles.

Another innovative way to incorporate health and fitness into a wellness program is to bring the gym to employees, rather than encouraging them to go to an off-site gym. Hosting an on-site gym enables a more efficient workout process that not only won’t require leaving the office but could even be part of the workday. It can also make it easier for businesses to host various wellness-related activities, such as a group exercise class.

The physical dividends of having a convenient place to work out are numerous. In addition to losing weight, it can help employees lower their cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and keep hormones in homeostasis. Facilitating exercise can also produce many mental health benefits. Studies show that a few minutes of activity per day can help pump up a wide range of mental abilities, such as concentration, memory, creativity, and learning efficiency. Studies also indicate that individuals who hit the gym during the workday are better at time management, more productive, and more satisfied at work.

Learn More About a Master of Business Administration

The concept of corporate wellness has been around for a while, but it continues to evolve, especially as information about its benefits becomes more prominent. For professionals and business students alike, it’s important to understand the impact that an effective corporate wellness program can have on an organization. This understanding not only involves the short- and long-term benefits that can be obtained via a healthy workforce, but it also includes knowing the consequences of an unhealthy staff. Having this knowledge could be a key component of a business’s ability to thrive in a competitive market.

Earning an advanced business degree, such as Maryville’s University’s online Master of Business Administration, can help professionals and students cultivate the knowledge and skills needed to implement effective, comprehensive corporate wellness program strategies that make a positive impact on employees’ physical and mental health. It can also equip them to incorporate a strong wellness program into a sound business structure, one that can foster corporate stability and growth. Discover how Maryville University can help guide you toward achieving your professional goals.

Recommended Readings

4 Things to Know About Group Dynamics in the Workplace

4 Tips for Improving the Reputation of Your Business

The Importance of Company Culture

 

Sources

The American Institute of Stress, “42 Worrying Workplace Stress Statistics”

American Medical Association, “Adult Obesity Rates Rise in 6 States, Exceed 35% in 7”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chronic Diseases in America

CNBC, “The Job Benefit That Can Help Lower Your Rising Health Insurance Payroll Deduction”

Corporate Wellness, “Mental Health As Part of Corporate Wellness Programs”

Corporate Wellness, “Wearable Technology: Its Place in Workplace Wellness”

Corporate Wellness, “What Makes a Corporate Wellness Program Effective?” 

Entrepreneur, “The How-To: Delivering an Employee Wellness Program That Works” 

Forbes, “How the Corporate Wellness Market Has Exploded: Meet the Latest Innovators in the Space” 

Forbes, “Seven Employee Wellness Trends and Opportunities for 2019” 

Forbes, “What We Pay Our Employees to Exercise at Work”

Houston Chronicle, “Barriers to Wellness Programs in the Workplace”

National Alliance on Mental Health, Mental Health by the Numbers

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Five Reasons Employee Wellness Is Worth the Investment” 

Science Daily, Obesity Drives U.S. Health Care Costs Up by 29 Percent, Varies by State

USA Today, “What Are the Benefits of Corporate Wellness Programs?”