With nearly 50% of Australian companies now offering some kind of workplace health initiative, there’s never been a better time to ask: do wellness programs actually work?

Google’s campus currently offers employees a robust wellness program that includes onsite healthcare services such as access to physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists and massage services. This is in addition to access to fitness centres and exercise classes.

Over at Apple’s Californian headquarters in Cupertino, employees have access to a concierge-style healthcare experience, a move designed to lure and retain talent.

Current reports indicate that well-designed wellness programs provide a rate of return of between A$2.3 and A$5.81 for every dollar invested. That’s a serious figure, but not everyone is convinced.

The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study looked at who benefits from these types of programs and to what effect – if any – they had on employees’ health behaviours, their wellbeing and productivity. The survey of around 5,000 people showed that financial incentives to participate were only partially effective and it did not change health behaviours after one year. The study also noted that those who took part tended to be healthier 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.

While Rand Health Quarterly reported that workplace wellness programs produce sustainable and meaningful improvement over time but need to be better measured and Humana in the Economist Intelligence Unit suggests workplace wellness is a competitive advantage driving engagement.

Workplace health comes with a ROI

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 mental wellbeing and a workplace environment that supports greater psychological safety.

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

Today there is even 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.

Maximising performance with health and wellness programs

Knowing the importance of these programs is only the start for any workplace leader. In order to ensure the right outcome, certain guidelines should always be considered.

Good design

Every business is unique, meaning any workplace health and wellness program must be tailored and aligned to the specific organisations’ 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.

A holistic approach to self-care

Begin with lifestyle choices to address getting adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, and sufficient physical activity. This requires more than putting fruit bowls in the kitchen, providing discounted gym memberships or a couple of sessions to learn mindfulness meditation techniques.

It requires a framework, timeline of implementation and some form of measurement along with some inspiration and encouragement to avoid being boring and predictable, because changing behaviours takes time.

The first 12 months is about getting the program started, with the benefits starting to filter across more in the second and third years with regular reviews and tweaks being made to strengthen what’s working well and ditch what hasn’t worked.

Be serious about mental wellbeing

While many individuals would like to be fitter and healthier, what is more potent for improved organisational health is to address the need for greater emotional intelligence, resilience skills and psychological safety.

Mental wellbeing is about reinforcing the need for sufficient downtime for adequate rest and recovery. This includes taking time to press pause to acknowledge wins or progress when targets and deadlines have been met while discouraging overwork. Mini celebrations and calling out the good done by others can also strengthen social ties, instil confidence and boost trust among the team.

Champion wellbeing

Make wellness leadership everybody’s business and allow it to be led by wellness champions throughout the organisation. This is about making the program accessible to all, especially to those working shifts or remotely.

Enjoyable work creates the best results

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 and engagement. Creating a great place to work is about feeling cared for and caring about others. It’s a win–win for everyone.

Why these programs work

When well designed and well executed, based on evidence-based principles, success can be achieved to the benefit of both the employee and employer.

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