Today, businesses large and small are embracing workplace wellness programs in an effort to lower healthcare costs and raise productivity and workplace morale. While the technology sector was an early adopter—with many companies offering on-site gyms and organic juice bars decades ago—today, wellness is finding a home in a growing range of workplaces, even those that have traditional eschewed gym culture and non-GMO campaigns. But can morning yoga classes and on-site cafés offering gluten-free sandwiches really help one’s bottom line? This post examines the workplace wellness trend, its connection to workplace training and the promised ROI.

Are Wellness Programs Good for Business?

Can Great Food Increase Productivity?

Most of us now know about power foods with their ubiquitous ancient grains, kale, low sugar counts and organic and GMO-free status (and don’t forget about the goji berries). This diet, whatever variation it takes, promises to increase our energy and help us squeeze the most out of the day. While once a fad for health food fanatics alone, times have changed and more people are buying into the idea that “we are what we eat” and hence, the arrival of Zipongo and similar digital tools designed to promote and track employees’ eating choices.

Zipongo, a digital start-up, aims to support employees in their ongoing efforts to navigate company cafeteria menus so they can select the healthiest choices and those that best meet their health needs and goals. Since it first appeared, Zipongo has expanded. It now also offers advice on takeout meals, as well as recipes, shopping lists, and discounts on healthy food choices, such as fruits and vegetables. Among the companies who have bought into Zipongo are Google and IBM.

Why go digital to promote health and wellness? First, there is the average cost of a nutrition counseling session, which is $73, compared to Zipongo’s rate (a mere $50 per year per employee). In addition, a provision in the federal health care law now requires insurers to address obesity screenings and nutritional counseling in many contexts. Promoting wellness and obesity prevention can prove beneficial, then, since it also generally results in lower health care premiums down the line. But beyond healthcare premiums, what are the real short-term and long-term benefits to organizations who can persuade their employees to eat healthy foods, exercise regularly and engage in yoga and meditation?

What’s the ROI for Wellness Programs?

A 2010 report in the Harvard Business Review discovered that by and large, health and wellness programs do pay off. An aggressive anti-smoking program at Johnson & Johnson, for example, reduced the company’s smoking employees by two-thirds. Along with the decline in smoking, the company saw a 50% drop in the number of employees with high blood pressure. The company maintains that their wellness program has saved the company $250 million on health care costs over the past decade.

Similar benefits have been reported in other organizations. A study at General Mills found a 14%-19% reduction in absenteeism after a wellness program was introduced, and General Electric absenteeism dropped by 45% after a wellness program was implemented. But in many respects, these results are old news. A study at NASA once reported that while sedentary office workers were especially unproductive during their final two hours of work, employees who exercised on a regular basis were able to remain productive all day long. A growing body of more recent research also suggests that healthy eating saves companies money (e.g., some studies report that employees with poor diets cost 40% more in health claims than those with healthy diets).

Since wellness programs are still relatively new, studies on their ROI are still limited, but there are a few things that research on wellness programs consistently concludes:

  • Wellness programs reduce employee absenteeism and therefore support productivity.
  • Employees in wellness programs are more likely to see a doctor before a condition gets so bad they must go to emergency (notably, this reduces healthcare costs).
  • Employees who are healthier have more energy and are more productive.
  • Wellness programs promote camaraderie among employees at work; this can be leveraged to enhance collaboration and team building across an organization and is also ultimately good for the bottom line.

Should and Can Employers Dictate their Employees’ Lifestyle Choices?

Should and Can Employers Dictate their Employees’ Lifestyle Choices?

While most studies suggest that workplace wellness programs are good for the bottom line (e.g., they promote productivity and reduce absenteeism) and pay off over time (e.g., with reduced health care cost), wellness programs can also result in compliance and ethical dilemmas and even come into violation with other laws.

Collecting and Sharing Worker’s Health Data

If you’re using an app to encourage healthy eating choices among your employees, you’ll also be collecting data on what employees are eating. Similarly, if you’re using an app to track and motivate employees’ fitness programs, the potential exists to collect data on employee’s weight and other health conditions. Collecting data on employee’s diets and health is encouraged since this is the only way to effectively measure the impact of a wellness program. The problem is that most vendors that support workplace wellness programs are not bound by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations. As a result, many outside wellness vendors have adopted policies that enable them to share employee data with unidentified third parties and agents. More common, however, is the extent to which vendors share apparently de-identified data (e.g., the general health results of an organization) with employers and with researchers. In short, your wellness program may fall into a HIPAA gray zone and down the line, this may result in potential compliance issues. For this reason, while gathering data is essential, it is also important to ensure your program is doing everything possible to protect employees’ private health information.

Overstepping Workplace Boundaries

While the army can dictate a recruit’s weight and even airlines can place restrictions on pilots’ weight and health, in most cases, employee’s weight, level of fitness and/or eating habits cannot, in fact, be used as a grounds for hiring or layoffs. In fact, discriminating against an employee on the basis of their weight could land an employer in a legal mess (e.g., if the employee can prove that they suffer from a condition that has led to their weight issue and alleges they are being discriminated against on the basis of a medically recognized disability, an employer may find themselves facing a much larger problem). For this reason, while efforts to encourage wellness may improve productivity, organizations should avoid being overly aggressive about their wellness demands. In addition, organizations should  remain sensitive to the fact that wellness itself can be a culturally contingent concept (e.g., it is a well-known fact that the body mass index, which is frequently used to measure “healthy” weights, is most appropriate for measuring the healthy weight of Caucasians and therefore, may not be an appropriate measure in a diverse workplace).

Can a Wellness Program Support Workplace Training?

Once again, while evidence-based longitudinal studies remain limited, there’s a growing body of research that supports the conclusion that wellness is not only good for individuals and for business but can support workplace training programs too. First, energized and motivated employees are more likely to be engaged and thereby engaged in training. Second, wellness has been linked to higher levels of cognition (e.g., irisin, which his produced in the brain during endurance exercise, is believed to have a neuroprotective impact and as a result also believed to support learning and memory). Most notably, however, employees who are healthy, miss fewer days on the job and are simply more likely to complete training programs in a timely manner. Of course, like all workplace programs, the only way to ensure a wellness program will not only promote higher levels of productivity but also support workplace training is to ensure that the wellness program is promoted from the top down and seen by all team players to be a core part of the organization’s health and longevity.

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