Does workplace wellness really matter? (Toughest HR Question)

Effective wellness program essential for both employees and employers
By Louise Chénier and Charles Boyer
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/18/2014

Question: Does workplace wellness really matter? We’re facing a lot of internal hurdles to our program, and getting questioned on spending. What are the components of a solid wellness program and what can we reasonably expect from our investment?

Answer: More companies are investing in comprehensive workplace health and wellness programs and employing workplace wellness specialists to work with core operational staff to  positively impact wellness and productivity. Some senior leaders, however, are skeptical and argue there is no return on investment (ROI) from investing in employee wellness and they refuse to dedicate time and money on such programs.

What is the issue? 

Critics of wellness programs believe wellness specialists are simply focused on employees’ physical well-being or, more specifically, metrics such as the body-mass-index (BMI). Wellness leaders who simply focus on lowering body weight or BMI are really doing a disservice to the field. 

Wellness programs are more than just the Biggest Loser and wellness leaders are not personal trainers like Ben Stiller in the movie Dodgeball; they shouldn’t specifically target overweight and obese employee populations, and BMI is not the bottom line. 

If participating in wellness programs does lead to dropping a few unwanted pounds, that is great. However, the goal is to help employees maintain or improve their health and become more productive. 

Critics also argue that wellness programs do not produce a positive ROI. However, research has demonstrated that integrated, comprehensive wellness programs that are correctly targeted to the health conditions most prevalent in a workforce will generate a positive financial return. 

The challenge is, only one-third of wellness leaders measure program outcomes and less than one per cent do so in a rigorous way. 

So what is workplace wellness? 

An effective wellness strategy supports employees who are physically and mentally healthy, as well as those who have health-risk factors or diseases. The program design should address the physical, psychological and social health of employees, and should include both collective and individual interventions.

It can be a challenge to address  all employee needs, given that their health statuses vary widely. Initiatives must be put in place to:

• maintain the health of people who are healthy

• identify the health-risk factors and medical conditions present in the employee population

• provide early interventions for employees with health risks and decrease the impact of serious or chronic medical conditions on individual employees and the organization.

What can wellness programs do?

Workplace health and wellness has many benefits that include reducing health-care costs, improving productivity, making workplaces more attractive and reducing turnover.

Comprehensive wellness programs can help tackle major issues facing the workplace in the following areas:

Mental health: This is a major issue for Canadian employers as more than 500,000 Canadians will be absent from work on a given week because of mental illness, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. 

Forty-four per cent of Canadian employees reported experiencing a mental health issue and only 26 per cent believed that their supervisor “effectively managed mental health issues,” found a 2011 Conference Board of Canada report based on a survey of 1,010 people.

Disability management: The estimated direct cost of absenteeism to the economy was $16.6 billion in 2011 and the average absenteeism rate among Canadian organizations in 2011 was 9.3 days per full-time employee, according to the Conference Board of Canada. 

Effectively managing disability early on is very important, as employees who are on leave for more than 12 weeks only have a 50 per cent chance of returning to work, according to a 2013 Conference Board of Canada report. 

To help companies better manage disability in the workplace, organizations should be encouraged to implement a number of enabling strategies including disability prevention, rehabilitation/treatment, benefit plan design, case management and return to work.

Healthy, active living: Employees working in office settings spend the majority of their time sitting, and recent research has linked the amount of time sitting with poor health. To compensate for this lack of activity, more and more workplaces are providing healthier nutritional alternatives. 

Two-thirds (65 per cent) of organizations offer some type of nutrition program, found a 2013 report from the Conference Board of Canada. 

Upcoming research from the Conference Board will feature case studies with Canadian employers on how employers increase physical activity and decrease sedentary behaviour in the workplace.

Health and safety: It is imperative for organizations to put health and safety on their board’s agenda for many reasons, one of which is the board’s ability to oversee risks in multiple business lines and functions. 

The Conference Board will be releasing two reports in the near future on fatigue management and substance abuse in the Canadian workplace. Preliminary findings show 78 per cent of employees report to work fatigued at least some days per week, and about 32 per cent of employers use an alcohol and drug testing program at their worksites.  

Final thoughts

Workplace wellness is essential for both employees and employers, and creating healthy brains and healthy bodies are important to an organization’s bottom line. 

An effective wellness program should consider the following five key steps: 

1. Setting the stage

2. Program design

3. Program implementation

4. Program management

5. Program evaluation. 

Regular evaluations of the program will allow for fine-tuning and optimization of practices, identify the initiatives that have the biggest impact, and ensure that sufficient financial and human resources are dedicated to them.

Louise Chénier is manager of workplace health and wellness research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa. She can be reached at (613) 526-3090 ext. 305 or Charles Boyer is a research associate, workplace health and wellness research, at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa. He can be reached at (613) 526-3090 ext. 305 or

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