The Ongoing Debate about Workplace Wellness Programs

Posted by Becky Squiers on Thu, Feb, 26, 2015

Wellness_DebateIt’s no secret that employee wellness programs have become a controversial topic as of late. While over 90% of larger employers have wellness programs, there have been numerous reports that companies are not achieving success, which has sparked an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of wellness programs.

With all of this negativity circling the workplace wellness field, it may seem that wellness programs are doomed to fail. Well the truth is, there are successful programs out there. These programs focus on personal wellness goals of each team member, don’t use the “wellness or else” model and work everyday to build a healthy organizational culture.

 Instead of more negative messages, we want to help you use the knowledge and past mistakes of not-so-successful programs to create better, more impactful programs. This week we’re taking a look at some of the key issues that George Washington University laid out about the benefits and risks of wellness programs.

When done right, you as an employer can expect:

  1. To save money. In the long run, your company can save money in a few different areas by sponsoring a successful wellness initiative. Both medical costs and absenteeism costs can be significantly decreased when you use a wellness program. Similarly, disability, worker compensation and training costs can also go down.
  2. To improve your company culture and attract talent. One of the primary benefits of a corporate wellness program is to foster a positive culture in your office. Wellness programs do this by improving employee morale and relationships with one another. This positive culture is a selling point when recruiting talented employees to your workforce.
  3. To gain positive health outcomes. This is obviously the primary and most direct goal of any corporate wellness program. By initiating health screening events, providing solutions and encouraging healthy lifestyle choices, you can impact the health of your employees. They spend all day in the office, so you’re bound to grab their attention at some point!
  4. To develop a more productive workforce. This productivity stems from healthier employees, reduced absenteeism, fewer disability claims and an overall better work environment. Aside from the tangible health and attendance outcomes, positivity can play a huge role in the productivity of your employees. Improving the culture of your company with wellness initiatives is a great step towards happier healthier employees.

When done not-so-right, you as an employer risk:

  1. Spending money you won’t get back. Unfortunately, when employees aren’t engaged in a wellness program and don’t take action towards improving their health, you might not see the improvements you’re hoping for. And these improvements can be a bit difficult to track because it’s difficult to translate health into a monetary value.
  2. Backlash for “mandatory” programs. While all wellness programs are mandated to be voluntary, the definition of that word is a bit fuzzy. Some programs offer financial incentives or disincentives for participation. When these motivators are put in place, employees tend to feel coerced into taking part in the wellness program, which eliminates the voluntary aspect.
  3. Discriminating against people with disabilities, chronic conditions or other factors that affect their health. Some programs focus wellness incentive programs on health status. Depending on the measurement, this can exclude people who have disabilities or chronic conditions because they physically can’t meet some of those standards. These people might feel discouraged to be a part of the wellness program, and are therefore missing out on some of the great features available.
  4. Facing privacy issues. Wellness programs deal with very sensitive health information—much of which employees don’t willingly offer to their bosses. This data needs to be protected and can’t be used for employment decisions. On the same note, some employees feel their workplace has no right to suggest health behaviors based on even aggregate results of their health data.

So how can you avoid the risks?

There are a few ways you can design your program to avoid the risks that make employee wellness programs controversial.

First, you can measure an abstract ROI. As we mentioned earlier, health status doesn’t always transfer smoothly to a monetary value. Things you can consider to make the two more relatable are reduced absentee days, increased productivity and efficiency, or reduced turnover. You can also measure more qualitative outcomes like employee satisfaction or burnout with surveys or focus groups. These things might not translate to a specific monetary value, but can speak wonders towards the quality of work your employees do.

Second, you could make your program voluntary. This directly addressed the feelings of coercion into the wellness program. You’ll see the best results and have excellent engagement if your program is voluntary in the truest sense of the word. Don’t pressure employees to join or offer ridiculous incentives that feel more like punishment. Recruit the people who want to take steps towards a healthier lifestyle. Their enthusiasm will eventually rub off on those who aren’t so sure.

Third, focus your program and rewards on individual improvement rather than predefined standards. This can help you avoid accidentally discriminating against anyone with a disability or chronic condition. Let your employees set their own goals, and help them reach those goals. Everyone will be included and will be able to see their own specific results which is another way to improve your engagement!

Finally, be secure. Don’t invade the privacy of your employees. As an employer, the most important numbers for you are the aggregate results. It’s your job to focus on how the company is doing, not how any one individual is doing. Remember that, and communicate that to your employees. Their data needs to be safe. This will help you to foster trust within the program, and can help you stay out of trouble. When it comes to health information HIPAA has a number of rules you need to follow to secure it. Comply with these rules and communicate the importance of security to your employees.

So the debate continues…are wellness programs worth it? If done right, an employee wellness program can be an absolute asset to your company. You can not only enhance your company culture, but improve the health and productivity of your workforce with an effective wellness program.

How has your company avoided potential wellness program risks?

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Topics: Wellness at Work


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