Corporate wellness may not be all it’s cracked up to be

Corporate wellness programmes are fast becoming a staple for medium to large enterprises. Workers appreciate them, but there is still some debate as to how much they help to boost productivity

Feature image

There remains a sizeable percentage of workers in Europe for whom stress is considered a badge of honour, despite studies to show beyond doubt that the relationship between stress and productivity is an unhealthy one.

Writing in her book The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä debunked the myth that the two make for a successful pairing and criticised those holding stress up as some sort of status symbol. “The idea that stress and success are inevitably intertwined has become so ingrained in our culture and work habits that we take pride in our stress levels.” In a culture where ‘overworked’ has an almost aspirational ring to it, studies like Seppälä’s are important in reminding businesses that stress can exert a heavy toll on their workforce.

Stressing the point
According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, around half of all European workers report feeling stressed in their place of work, and the issue is responsible for half of the continent’s lost working days. Stress, according to the organisation’s director, Jukka Takala, numbers among Europe’s biggest health and safety concerns, and these work-related health problems are thought to affect 22 percent of all EU workers.

Stressors – as they’re often called – dictate our mood, wellbeing, behaviour and health, and increased stress has been shown to limit workers’ ability to cope with even the simplest of tasks. While beneficial in the short term, those logging 60-hour working weeks should expect to see a significant drop in their productivity.

Likewise, the Global Benefits Attitudes survey found that a high level of stress lends itself to disengagement and low productivity. Of the 22,347 employees who featured, more than half who claimed they were under stress felt disengaged, in contrast to the one in 10 of those without stress. The first group took an average of 4.6 sick days per year, as opposed to 2.6 for the second, which again supports the assertion that stressed employees are unproductive ones. Though it’s no revelation to suggest stressed employees are unmotivated and ultimately disengaged, the scale of the problem, and the extent to which companies have been happy to let it unfold, is perhaps what’s most surprising.

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, around half of all European workers report feeling stressed in their place of work, and the issue is responsible for half of the continent’s lost working days

As the European recovery takes hold and competition for top talent increases, companies are coming to terms with the fact that employee wellbeing is a strategic priority. In this climate, corporate wellness programmes have come to be seen as a key point of differentiation, and there’s no shortage of company initiatives to keep employees engaged. “Rising healthcare costs drove the initial surge in popularity”, said Matthew Benton, Director of Marketing and Communications at Wellness Corporate Solutions. “But in the last few years, wellness has become a standard part of an employer’s benefits package.”

Wealth and wellbeing
Aggressively marketed by press and trade publications, corporate wellness is even finding favour among the usually sceptical academic community, and falls in line with the common ideology that healthy workers are productive ones. Healthy employees stay with a company longer, and much of the research on the subject goes to show that effective wellness programmes can make vital cost savings and boost productivity.

“The early days of wellness were driven by altruism, i.e. the idea that helping employees be/stay well is the ‘right’ thing to do. As the industry has grown, wellness programmes have become more accountable, or results-driven”, said Phil Daniels, co-founder of Healthiest Employer, a privately held technology firm focused on population health. “Today, employers are measuring the financial results (lowered health costs) and health results (improved health of employees). The future will likely look to measure the productivity and tangible performance of wellness participants.”

Among those peddling the benefits of wellness to employers is Fitbit, which offers a comprehensive package of products for companies looking to keep tabs on health and fitness. The company’s own data shows that users with one or more friends are 27 percent more active on average, and taking 10,000 steps a day, according to the American Heart Association and US Surgeon General, can improve health, decrease the risk of disease and lead to a longer life. However, research goes to show that the reasons to invest in wellness go beyond health, and figures on this very point feature front and centre in the company’s pitch.

The Principal Financial Well-Being Index asserts that 45 percent of employees on an employer-sponsored wellness programme would be encouraged to stick with their current employer, as opposed to 40 percent not on one. A meta-evaluation of 42 peer-reviewed corporate wellness studies suggests a wellness programme can lead to a 25-percent reduction in absenteeism and sick leave, not to mention a 25-percent reduction in health costs and 32-percent reduction in compensation and disability costs.

The hypothesis that health promotion programmes improve wellbeing and boost productivity stands to reason. Yet empirical evidence to prove just that has only recently come to light, which, aside from justifying existing wellness programmes, provides ample incentive for employers to think up one of their own making. The complications arise when it comes to calculating the exact link between the money spent on wellness and the productivity gains achieved, though advances in data and analytics capabilities mean the answers are shifting into focus.

Corporate wellness programmes were implemented mostly – if not exclusively – by large organisations in years past, though a raft of studies to show the impact of discontent and ill health on workplace productivity has prompted smaller organisations to follow suit. This, combined with the industrialisation of developing countries, means the market for corporate wellness is growing bigger by the day.

According to a new report by Transparency Market Research: “Corporates are conducting lifestyle coaching and biometric screenings, and are also encouraging service providers to synchronise hospital care as well. Companies are also looking forward to implement evidence-based treatment schemes for employees. Corporate wellness programmes are thus emerging as a routine employer-sponsored initiative for health improvement of employees.”

Not all well
All this being said, there’s no shortage of those who would claim wellness programmes are poor value for money and do little to combat the issues at hand. André Spicer, a professor at Cass Business School and co-author of The Wellness Syndrome, claims wellness programmes yield low returns and exacerbate some of the common issues of stress and ill health in the workplace. Wellness programmes can eat into employees’ private lives and turn criticisms of unhealthy behaviours into much broader feelings of negativity, he observed.

One popularly cited Rand Corporation study questions whether the multi billion-dollar industry is saving employers money at all. Lifestyle management, according to the report, can save money only if the risk is high in relation to the cost of intervention. Another survey, conducted by The American Journal of Health Promotion, examined 51 research studies on the same subject, only to conclude that the ROI of workplace wellness programmes boasted a mean average return of -22 (this means that 78 cents were returned for every dollar invested). So, while employers looking to improve wellbeing and productivity might find the answers they seek in a corporate wellness programme, those seeking a healthy return on investment might not.

The fairness of corporate wellness programmes has also been called into question recently, and critics are of the opinion that these schemes serve only to benefit the already fit and unnecessarily penalise any workers with underlying health issues. A growing band of companies for which wellness programmes have become compulsory are doing much to complicate the issue here, and it’s important that employees be given the option not to partake if they so choose.

“As an industry, there is an inflated value placed on programme participation. Employers (and wellness vendors) often equate participation levels with the success of a wellness programme. So what if an employee shows up to a lunch-and-learn meeting?”, said Daniels. “A blanket approach is less effective than targeting individuals with messaging, engagement and programming that is closer tied to measurable health outcomes.”
What’s more, according to Benton, the excessive penalties some employers impose for non-participation can feel coercive and harm morale. “Some wellness providers tend to offer the same solution to every group, but we’ve found that customisation is key. What works for one organisation may be ineffective for another, so providers need to be flexible and have a wide range of experience.”

As a result, it seems the focus in recent times has fallen on wellbeing more than wellness, and companies are adopting programmes of their own making with a view to improving corporate culture, as opposed to securing an immediate ROI or penalising
unhealthy behaviours.

“Corporate wellness programmes have gained in popularity because corporations are trying to attract and retain employees”, said Seppälä. “The problem comes, however, when they try to do so using only material perks (e.g. work from home day) but if you look at the research, what matters most to employee happiness is not the material benefits (pay or otherwise) but their level of happiness at work. And determinants of happiness at work are positive social relationships with other people and a culture characterised by trust, integrity, mutual support, respect and empathy.”

Clearly, the issue of effectiveness is subject to the individual. And while corporate wellness programmes have received much in the way of support in recent times, sceptical observers needn’t look very far for criticism. The bigger picture here is how much employers are willing to do to safeguard their employees’ health and wellbeing. Looking at the issue through the prism of profits is to ignore a great many of the factors that make wellness programmes attractive, and the success of any one programme can only be judged on a case-by-case basis. Having a wellness initiative in place is no guarantee the company will improve employee wellbeing, and the real issue here is about creating a strong value system.