Do Workplace Wellness Programs Really Work?

MIT Sloan Management Review

Corporate wellness programs are a lot like New Year’s resolutions. While announced with the best of intentions, they don’t lead to enough real action — let alone the kinds of transformations they’re designed to bring.

Just as numerous reports bemoan the way our personal resolutions quickly fall to the wayside, analyses of corporate wellness programs bring similarly dispiriting news. “The most credible research,” Fortune reports, “suggests mixed, if not ambiguous, results.”

A 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that spending on corporate wellness programs has tripled to $8 billion since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and today 50 million workers have access to them. These programs promise all sorts of economic benefits, such as reduced medical spending and absenteeism, and increased employee productivity and satisfaction. But the researchers found that the people who chose to take part in such a program already had lower medical expenditures and healthier behaviors. The study did not find causal effects “of treatment on total medical expenditures, health behaviors, employee productivity, or self-reported health status” in the first year of most programs.

Through my work founding and growing companies, I’ve discovered ways to make wellness a corporate value that leads to concrete changes and positive results. Managers play a crucial role in making this happen by working with their reports to change workplace habits and boost participation in all health-related activities a company offers.

Get your employees to take vacation. Americans’ stress levels are on the rise. A report by the American Psychological Association in 2017 found the country “at its highest stress level yet.” As Rice University professor Akane Sano cited in research published while at the MIT Media Lab, 83% of Americans are stressed at work, which reduces productivity, can lead to insomnia, and increases absenteeism in the workplace.

People need vacations to rejuvenate. But the majority of employees don’t use all their paid time off. In its State of American Vacation 2018 report, “Project: Time Off” found that 52% of employees have unused vacation days at the end of the year — a figure that’s been dropping slightly in recent years, but remains far too high. A whopping 705 million vacation days went unused in the most recent year surveyed.

Why aren’t stressed employees taking time off? The three biggest reasons involve the culture of the workplace: People fear looking replaceable in their jobs, they have workloads that are so heavy they dread the pile of tasks they’ll come back to, and there’s a lack of coverage for them at work.

It’s up to managers to allay these concerns. When evaluating corporate wellness, managers should take time to examine policies already in place, such as paid time off. Leaders should ensure their organizations and teams are structured so that business-critical tasks are covered during breaks. This also means having more open communication with employees about the importance of using their paid time off. One way to set the standard is to walk the walk: When employees see their manager taking vacation time and encouraging them to use theirs, it sets the right example.

Make healthy food available. According to the CDC, people are gobbling up an average of 1,300 calories a week from their workplaces, and the vast majority of it is what they’re given to munch on for free. Research has found that workplace-provided food is often high in empty calories; one only needs to see the dessert tray at a catered lunch to understand how little nutrition most workplace-provided food is giving employees.

When managers hold team meetings or one-on-one get-togethers with individual employees, make a habit of providing healthy options for people to grab. When veggie trays, whole fruits, and nuts are around, people eat them. The American Heart Association also recommends limiting when free food is available and organizing a potluck build-your-own-salad bar.

Offer a range of wellness activities. Meditation isn’t for everyone. Neither is yoga or cycling. So bringing in trainers and teachers to run these kinds of sessions may attract some employees, but others will stay away.

Most people have some form of exercise they might enjoy. Managers should ask their reports what kinds of wellness activities they are interested in and help to organize them. For example, if an employee likes going for walks, make your next meeting with that employee a walking meeting.

Some physical activities can fall under “learning” or “education,” which may help managers find funding in their budgets.

Provide stipends. More and more businesses are starting to offer employees monthly stipends for health and wellness activities, such as gym memberships. But these often go unused.

As with paid time off, managers are in a strong position to encourage employees to put these to use. Without pressuring any individual employee, managers can provide frequent reminders about the benefit and the various ways the reimbursement can be used.

Wellness programs can take many forms. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out, wellness programs can include programs to quit smoking, fitness challenges, weight control and nutrition guidance plans, and more. Just like with any other investment or KPI, managers, not just HR, should revisit these programs, analyze their effectiveness, and use them throughout the year.

When businesses make it a habit to check up on just how well their wellness programs are going, they can help their employees make this the year that some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions — to eat healthier, get more exercise, and increase self-care — finally stick.

Kamyar Shah

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