Workplace Wellness Programs Deliver If You Do Them Right

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A recent study produced by independent researchers has found employees engaged in wellness programs are healthier and the cost of running those programs is paid back in spades. Funded by the Victorian WorkCover Authority, the study found medical costs and absenteeism pay back at a rate of three to one for each dollar spent on a workplace health program. So, what else can we learn and what does it to take to create a successful workplace wellness program?

The study was conducted by Toni Ryan, Vanessa Rice and John Saunders from the Australian Catholic University, and Susan Limbrick from St. Vincents Private Hospital in Melbourne. Its aim was to look at cumulative injury costs, number of compensation claims, lost time injury days and premium costs to see if they were reduced following the implementation of a workplace health management program in a major Australian metropolitan surgical hospital. They compared data for the three years prior to the program starting and the three years after. The full study is available here.

While we have a tacit understanding that healthy staff result in a more productive workforce, the study put some metrics around those benefits. They found a 56 percent reduction in injury costs and a 46 percent reduction in injury compensation claims. Looking across 22 other studies, they were able to provide a financial impact, saying medical costs fall by $3.27 and absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent on a wellness program.

One of the interesting comments made by the researchers was "Australian employers will continue to find it difficult to justify increased investment in them. In the United States where employers are responsible for the healthcare costs of employees, companies have demonstrated a compelling business case for health promotion programs".

They noted examples in the United States and United Kingdom where the benefits of workplace wellness programs have saved hundreds of millions of dollars in injury claims and staff absences.

The study looked at the effects of a specific wellness program that was run in a large metropolitan hospital with a workforce of about 1400 people. That voluntary program incorporated several different activities.

  • A six-minute daily group exercise program to bring managers and workers together before a work shift
  • Health education
  • Relaxation
  • Posture education

One of the interesting elements of the program was a change in terminology. Rather than reporting "accidents", the hospital reported "incidents" so that problems that could escalate could be identified earlier.

What's a good workplace wellness program look like?

Different employers take different approaches to how wellness programs should be executed. And, to a great degree, the approach taken will depend on workplace culture and other conditions. But the best place to start is by talking to people. Find out what they would like to do.

For example, one of my friends who manages a large team, has taken to having outdoor walking meetings when the weather allows. This gets people a little more mobile and moves them out of the office into the sunlight. She takes notes on her smartphone while walking and also fosters more open conversations as some of the formality is removed.

One hospital in the US instituted a "Beat the Boss" program where staff and management were in challenge to see who could walk the most steps in a week.

But that might not work for everyone. The trick is to talk to people.

Education is also key. Many people either hold on to old ideas of what healthy behaviours are. For example, many health professionals advocate for active recovery from injury rather than complete rest. That means people, who are impaired by an injury, can be active. But that requires the support of health professionals. Many companies see the "sticker shock" of the doctor's bill without realising there's a benefit in getting people back to work earlier.

It's also important to not make programs overly formal or rigorous. The research noted that participation in the program described in the research was not mandatory but was very inclusive. In some cases, hospital visitors and patients joined in. This is because the program was designed to be non-threatening and fun.

Shared meals, where healthy foods are on offer, and fruit and other healthy snacks rather than vending machines with sweets and sugared drinks are also a good move. Many offices have communal areas for people to meet. Stocking them with healthy snacks and drinks encourages healthy eating habits.

Obviously, ensuring your program complies with appropriate workplace safety laws is important. While it might seem like a good idea to install a gym at the office, if it's unsupervised then it could be a problem. Some workplaces have a games area, with table tennis tables and other fun things. Again, it's important to ensure these don't make the workplace less safe. No one wants to get smacked in the head by a table tennis bat.

Once you've started the program, regularly evaluate its effectiveness and participation. A small committee and the occasional survey can help you refine the program so that it doesn't get stale and boring.


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