We spend over half of our lives split between full-time work (2,000 hours) and eight hours of nightly sleep (2,920). The other 44% of our life may be spent running errands and taking care of our families. But when is there time to take care of ourselves?

Recognizing that many workers are struggling to meet the demands of their jobs and families and still take care of themselves, many companies have begun instituting workplace wellness programs. These can be anything from gym facilities in the workplace to group runs and walks and long-term paid maternity and paternity leave.

While some workplace wellness programs have struggled to take hold, there is increasing evidence that including them in workers’ daily lives is the key to happy, healthy employees.

A case study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), found that one company’s quest to improve employee mental and physical wellness resulted in decreased healthcare costs and increased productivity. The company, which is not named in the study, implemented various workplace wellness programs over five years as they moved to a consumer-driven health plan in accordance with the Affordable Care Act. Wellness offerings included on-site workout facilities and programs for smoking cessation and weight loss.

The 2,000 employees included in the data showed a significant increase in wellbeing over the five years, with an increase on the wellbeing index of over 13%. Significant decreases were found in important health measures also, including:

  • Healthcare costs: Down 5.2%
  • Obesity rates: Down 4.8%
  • Smoking rates: Down 9.7%

In addition, productivity increased and worker absenteeism dropped.

While the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act may have resulted in increased costs for both employers and employees, including a workplace wellness program for the company in the study actually reduced the overall costs. Aaron Wells, PhD, of Healthways, Inc., in Franklin, Tennessee and the author of the study pointed out that spending the extra money on these programs benefits everyone, saying:

“Transitioning to a CDHP combined with a robust well-being improvement strategy is an effective means for both employer and employees to benefit. Both entities save money and are more productive as a result.”

But all of the positive workplace wellness programs in the world won’t help if employees do not utilize them.

Employers are trying to find ways to help encourage employees to take advantage of wellness programs, and one study published in International Journal of Workplace Health Management may have found a way to do that: implement a health code of conduct.

This small-scale study surveyed 157 people regarding their attitudes towards a workplace health code of conduct. Essentially, this health code of conduct would be signed upon hiring. Lead author and doctoral candidate Rebecca Robbins described the health code, saying,

“[It is] a contract that employees sign at the start of employment to opt into a work culture that promotes and rewards employee health and wellness through monetary rewards, such as prescription discounts and reduced co-pays, and through recognition programs.”

Co-author Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life notes:

“Rewarding employees for complying with health initiatives can be as easy as lowering co-pays, offering prescription discounts, vacation days, and vaccinations. Offering recognition is also a great way to show employees that their health and wellbeing are valued by the company.”

Another study conducted by the U.S Department of Labor found that the most effective workplace wellness programs started at the hiring date to tailor their programs to the employees. Eighty percent of the companies in this study screened employees prior to or just after hiring and then selected workplace wellness programs targeting specific health issues.

Companies then offered two types of preventive interventions:

  • Primary prevention: This type of program focuses on lifestyle changes to promote wellness among employees with risk factors for conditions such as diabetes
  • Secondary prevention: Secondary prevention helps employees improve disease management for a condition they already have

Workplace wellness programs in this study varied widely, with most employers offering smoking cessation; weight loss or weight management; targeted education and activities for diabetes, heart disease, and mental health; and other interventions like onsite vaccinations and healthy food options at the company cafeteria.

This study found that those who participated in the workplace wellness programs offered by their employers improved their health dramatically, but there is one issue: few employees in the study took advantage of the programs offered. Just 46% of new hires opted in to a screening process for the wellness programs, and of those, less than 20% chose to participate.

Lack of participation in workplace wellness programs has been an ongoing problem since their beginning.

A Gallup-Healthways poll found that the disconnect may be between the employees and the program designers. In the U.S., 85% of employers have workplace wellness programs in place, yet less than 25% of employees actively and regularly participate in them.

The poll suggests that the missing link may be employee managers, those people with direct, daily contact with and influence on workers. Employee-manager relations plays a strong role in employee wellbeing.

Another Gallup poll asked whether or not employees felt that their manager cared about their wellbeing. Those who answered positively had fewer sick days, were more productive, and changed jobs less frequently than those who did not feel cared for by their direct supervisors.

The end result is that workplace wellness programs are an affordable and effective way to increase employee health and wellbeing, but only if they are implemented effectively and utilized by employees.

Does your employer offer a workplace wellness program, and, if so, do you participate?

Photo by antony_mayfield via Flickr

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