Chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and chronic pulmonary conditions are becoming a huge economic burden in the U.S. Earlier onset of chronic disease and its development in more working-aged adults has caused a decline in the overall health and quality of life of employees, resulting in days away from work and subpar job performance. Adding to the burden is the cost of treating chronic disease—estimated to account for about 75% of national healthcare expenditures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified the top four behaviors that contribute to chronic disease in the U.S.: poor nutrition, physical inactivity, frequent alcohol consumption and tobacco use. To improve the overall quality of life of employees as well as curb the costs of rising health care, many employers are instituting workplace wellness programs to help employees adopt healthier lifestyles. The good news is that Rand Corporation’s 2014 research shows that more than half of U.S. employers with 50 or more employees offer workplace wellness programs.
The Harvard Business Review defines workplace wellness programs as an organized, employer-sponsored program that is designed to support employees (and sometimes, their families) as they adopt and sustain behaviors that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the organization’s bottom line.
While in the past corporate wellness programs have not been viewed as essential, the enormous costs associated with health care, which are rising quickly with the aging workforce, are making the programs more of a strategic imperative. Health education and coaching, smoking cessation programs, weight and chronic disease management programs, medical screenings, and on-site fitness programs are all components of corporate wellness programs. In addition, programs may include policies to facilitate employee health such as allowing time for exercise, offering healthy food options in cafeterias and vending machines, consistent communication that encourages positive health behaviors and offering financial and other incentives for participation.
CDC research says that public health can be improved by building workplace “cultures of health” that support healthy lifestyles. This culture can be created when the employer provides financial and organizational support for employee wellness programs that include many of the program criteria mentioned above. In companies with a strong health culture, employees are three times as likely to report taking action to improve their health and rate all aspects of their performance higher than employees whose employers lack a strong culture of health.
A 2013 workplace wellness study by Rand found that people who participate in workplace wellness programs generally saw improvements in health-related behavior and health risks. These include increased smoking cessation rates, improved physical activity, weight loss, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and consumption of more fruits and vegetables. Long-term participation in a wellness program may lower employer health care costs.
Engagement at all levels is essential for workplace wellness programs to be successful. Employers need to be supportive and communicate frequently with their employees, while employees need to be active participants. The goal is to change health-related behaviors and teach self-management of chronic disease and related risk factors through helpful channels.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review while some health risk factors, such as heredity, cannot be modified, focused education and personal discipline can change others such as smoking, physical inactivity, weight gain, and alcohol use—and, by extension, hypertension, high cholesterol, and even depression. The article also found that workplace wellness programs have three main benefits: lower health care costs, greater employee productivity, and higher workplace morale.
Wellness programs do more than help promote a healthier workforce — they also have a tremendous impact on a company’s bottom line. It’s the best first step in maintaining a healthy, productive and satisfied workforce. Effective workplace wellness programs, policies and environments that are health-focused and worker-centered have the potential to significantly benefit employers and improve the quality of life of employees, their families, and communities.