In 1979, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition founded the National Association for Health and Fitness, which in turn created Global Employee Health and Fitness Month. The aim of this annual observance in May is to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle to employers and their employees through worksite health promotion activities and environments.
Almost half of all US worksites provide health promotion activities through some type of employee wellness program, an initiative within the organization that fosters healthy lifestyles among its employees. Employee wellness programs vary in the types of services and activities offered, but in the long run, they all appear to benefit the employees – and the employers.
What’s included in a company’s employee wellness program generally depends on the size of the organization, its budget for wellness initiatives and which activities make the most sense for its employee population. The most successful programs address multiple dimensions of employee wellbeing, including their physical, emotional, social, occupational and financial wellbeing.
To help improve employee wellbeing across all dimensions, companies can employ a wide variety of solutions. These may include: health risk assessments, fitness classes or gym reimbursement, health coaching, health education, flu shots, financial counseling/planning, flexible work schedules, free health food, health fairs, on-site/near-site health clinics, telemedicine, tobacco cessation, weight management and wellness challenges.
In many cases, the benefits of providing an employee wellness program outweigh the cost of providing the program. Employees spend most of their time at work, so linking their wellness goals with an overall work-life balance can positively impact the company’s bottom line business outcomes.
For one thing, employee wellness programs lower the employees’ elevated health risks, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. Managing risk translates into improved overall health. This ultimately reduces use of medical services and lowers medical costs to the employee and employer.
In addition, organizations with good wellness programs can experience reduced absenteeism for a number of reasons. Employees with good general health typically don’t miss work. Employees who can manage stress well have lower absenteeism. Employees with normal blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose are less likely to miss work, and those who are not overweight or obese are less likely to get sick and miss work.
Poor employee productivity at work is called presenteeism. That’s when you’re at work but not really working, and it’s been linked to poor health. Employee wellness programs that impact employee lifestyles and improve health eliminate presenteeism and increase employee productivity. These programs also help to retain and recruit employees to the company, as many workers today look for factors beyond salary when choosing an employer.
Not so fast! Researchers reported conflicting results in a study published in the April 2019 edition of JAMA. In their study, researchers analyzed data from 160 worksites employing nearly 33,000 people. About 10 percent of the employers in the study offered wellness programs that addressed topics such as exercise, nutrition and stress.
The researchers compared employees with and without access to a wellness program over 18 months and discovered that those who had access to a wellness program reported significantly higher rates of exercise and weight management efforts.
BUT, those with and without wellness programs had similar self-reported health behaviors and outcomes; similar results on 10 heath measures, including blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index; similar use of medical resources; and similar absenteeism and job performance.
So what’s the bottom line when it comes to employee wellness programs? Do they work or don’t they? It’s clear more research is needed to determine the true effectiveness and benefit of these programs. For example, a study lasting longer than 18 months might yield much different results.
If you started exercising more, lost weight, quit smoking and/or began eating healthier because of what you learned though an employee wellness program, you’ll definitely reap benefits that will positively impact your overall health. That’s the true bottom line.