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Do health and workplace wellness programs work?

Studies show that seven in 10 employees say a culture of wellbeing at work is a must, and around 60% expect their employer to be doing more. Health and wellness programs can be a solid investment in productivity and engagement – so how effective are they?

With nearly 50% of Australian companies now offering some kind of workplace health and wellness program, it’s time to acknowledge their effects on a business.

Current reports indicate well-designed wellness programs provide a rate of return between $2.3 and $5 dollars for every dollar invested.

Not everyone is convinced; the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study looked at who benefits from these types of programs, and what effect they had on employees’ health behaviours, wellbeing and productivity. The survey of around 5,000 people showed that financial incentives to participate were only partially effective, did not change health behaviours after one year and those who took part tended to be healthier than others in the first place.

This contrasts with findings from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which found that good corporate wellness programs were beneficial because they promoted a culture of health and wellbeing that permeated throughout an organisation.

Rand Health Quarterly reported that workplace wellness programs produce sustainable and meaningful improvement over time but need to be better measured, while a study conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit suggests workplace wellness is a competitive advantage that drives engagement, and that failing to create this culture is at the detriment of the business.

The business case for workplace health and wellness programs

Having a fit and healthy workforce equates to higher productivity, performance and profitability.

With untreated mental health conditions costing the Australian economy around $10.9 billion per annum through absenteeism, presenteeism and compensation claims, there is a vital need to provide greater support to mental wellbeing and a workplace environment that supports greater psychological safety.

There is a growing interest in self-care at both the individual and organisational level to reduce the impact of chronic stress or potential burnout. Making wellness business as usual gives everyone permission to undertake those activities that facilitate resilience, and it creates a culture oriented to good health practices.

There is an expectation for workplace health and wellbeing programs to be offered.

Current indicators show around 60% of employees expect their employer to be doing more to support their wellbeing, though less than half thought their workplace environment was supportive of this.

Making a successful health and wellness program

  1. Good design

    Every business is unique, meaning any workplace health and wellness program must be tailored and aligned to the specific organisation’s needs. This includes factoring in how to address specific risk factors and optimise the working environment to support effective implementation and maximise participation. A joint consultative approach will improve buy-in at all levels.

  2. A holistic approach to self-care
    • Begin with lifestyle choices: adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, enough physical activity. This requires more than fruit bowls in the kitchen, discounted gym memberships or a couple of mindfulness meditation sessions. It requires a framework, timeline of implementation and some form of measurement – along with inspiration and encouragement to avoid boredom, because changing behaviours takes time.

    • While many individuals would like to be fitter and healthier, what is more potent for improved organisational health is greater emotional intelligence, resilience skills and psychological safety. Mental wellbeing is about prioritising sufficient downtime for adequate rest and recovery, and discouraging overwork. This includes pressing pause in order to acknowledge wins or progress when targets and deadlines have been met. Mini celebrations in recognition of good done by others instils confidence and boosts trust.

  3. Champion wellbeing
    Make wellness leadership everybody’s business, with leaders or ‘wellness champions’ throughout the organisation. This is about making the program accessible to all, especially to those working shifts or remotely.

But… why?

We spend around a third of our lives at work. Making that time more enjoyable through better health and wellbeing lowers stress and increases resilience, engagement and loyalty. Creating a great place to work is about ensuring your people feel cared for and valued.

Do workplace health and wellness programs work? Yes – when they’re well-designed and well-executed, using evidence-based principles. And the result? A long list of win–wins, benefiting both employee and employer.

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