Our CEO & Co-Founder Adam Barker explores the gripes lots of employers have with existing corporate wellness programmes, and offers some simple solutions to a big problem.
Employee wellness programs are initiatives companies use to try to improve the health of their workers. These programs differ widely across companies, but they all aim to reduce health-related absenteeism (i.e. sick days) and increase employee productivity. Companies usually turn to them to reduce health costs, but they’re often ineffective, poorly crafted and even discriminatory. Instead, companies should focus on less intrusive ways to encourage wellness, and let employees manage their own health. Employee monitoring is not a new concept, but tracking employee health, and trying to improve it for corporate gain, is an overstep.
What do they consist of?
Eighty-one percent of large employers (with 200 or more workers) and 49 percent of small employers offer some type of wellness promotion programs. Companies often contract with external healthcare vendors, or attain an in-house occupational health to offer these initiatives.
Workplace health and wellness promotion incentives and programs include:
- Health risk assessments
- Weight loss programs and competitions
- Biometric screenings (health screenings that measure blood pressure, weight, height, body mass index)
- Gym membership reimbursements
- Tobacco cessation programs
- Flu shots and health clinics
- Chronic disease management and prevention
- Health and lifestyle coaching
The big problem with employee wellness programs
On the surface, standard wellness programs seem like a win-win for both employer and employee, but crafting a workplace health and wellness program means defining health and wellness, and has basic, fundamental problems when trying to encourage a wellness culture.
Current, internal programmes open the door to discriminatory health judgments, and do not value individual health concerns, nor individual privacy (For example, a tobacco cessation program is unnecessary for non-smokers, and a FitBit competition can alienate non-walkers). These decisions can negatively affect employee engagement.
A HR department’s time is actually better spent improving their benefits package instead of implementing a one-size-fits-all program that fits no one.
They use faulty metrics to measure health
Traditional programs use metrics that are not always accurate. For example, biometric screenings are a popular feature of most wellness programs and include calculating a person’s body mass index (BMI) to determine obesity, but research suggests that BMI is an ineffective measurement of healthy weight that does not consider body fat percentages – it cannot differentiate the ripped from the chubby.
They are all stick, no carrot
In the US especially, wellness programs are often a way to shift health costs onto employees. Employers often promote these programs and their financial incentives as optional, but in some workplaces, there’s a non-participation fee of higher health premiums.
It also is a shift in the financial premiums if you fail certain screenings. For example, the faulty measure of BMI is used to pre-qualify health costs, as well as blood pressure measurements (although good for pre-screening hypertension, it isn’t consistent from one moment to the next) can be overused and eventually over treated, for what could be false alarms, costing employees more.
Penalizing employees who don’t sign up for a wellness program, or fail certain screenings that are related to one’s health (but doesn’t depict the full picture) sends the wrong message to your workers. Failing employees using measurements without much predictive value as a means of distinguishing healthy employees from unhealthy employees also does not enforce a wellness culture, nor an employee benefit.
They compromise individual privacy
Corporate wellness programs bring health privacy concerns to the forefront. In the States, under current U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules, companies can require employees to share health data to obtain a financial incentive as part of a program – or pay higher premiums. This heavy-handed approach puts older workers who might have serious medical conditions in an uncomfortable position. It also can generate unease with employees who wouldn’t want to share particular health concerns with their employer; realistically, would you want your boss to know your body fat percentages? How much may this deter, in extreme circumstances, individuals from gaining internal promotions not based on their skills and qualities (which it should be), but from characteristics of their body that they cannot control?
No one’s sure they work
Wellness program success is sometimes questionable. Some cases show they don’t actually reduce health costs or improve employees’ health and wellness. Half of employers who offer wellness programs don’t formally evaluate them, which is so crucial when it comes to ensuring that a wellness culture is being achieved, especially when it comes to people retention.
This can be expensive for the employee, where smoking cessation is the only fundamental behavior where achieving the goal led to a greater reward. Most employers said their programs reduced health costs, absenteeism and health-related productivity losses, but only 2 percent could provide actual savings estimates, and definite, quantitative measures of productivity and retention statistics.
Also, often these programs aren’t communicated effectively: most nonparticipating employees would consider joining their company’s wellness program if they knew more about it, and if it was packaged and promoted to them. There definitely is room for improvement across the board with workplace wellness packages
How to create a wellness culture at your Company
Successful companies attract and retain talented employees. The best companies also have a very successful employee benefits package that includes wellness; it’s in a prospective employees’ top 3 requirements. To join their ranks, engineer your company’s perks and benefits to keep your employees happy and productive by:
- Offering a meaningful benefits packages
Spend your time and money creating a benefits package that will be useful to your employees. For example, here are some of the best company benefits and perks offered by leading companies in their respective industries:
- Spotify covers costs for egg freezing and fertility assistance
- Airbnb offers a $2,000 stipend for its employees to travel and stay in an Airbnb anywhere in the world
- REI encourages its employees to get outside by offering two paid days off, called “Yay Days,” a year to enjoy their favorite outside activity.
- Burton employees receive season ski passes and “snow days” to hit the slopes after a big snowfall.
- Asana employees have access to executive and life coaching services outside of the company.
- Encouraging flexible working hours
A good work from home policy communicates that you care about your employees’ personal lives and want to give them flexibility to manage their time. At Chinese travel website Ctrip, a work-from-home experiment not only led to greater productivity (call volume increased by 13.5 percent among the company’s call center workers) but workers used less sick time and reported they were happier and less likely to quit.
- Promoting real wellness perks
You can nurture a wellness culture at your company without enforcing it. Hootsuite’s CEO, Ryan Holmes, for example, encourages his employees to exercise at work by offering gym facilities, showers and changing rooms. Employers who can’t afford those amenities can still build a wellness culture by offering other perks, like:
- Paid fitness breaks
- Healthy snacks
- Fitness and wellness classes
- Seminars and mental health talks
- Accessible video content related to individual needs
- Standing desks, exercise balls, and bike racks
Workplace wellness programs seem to make sense when technology makes tracking health easy. But there’s a fine line between easy and intrusive. Employees are people, not statistics, and companies should leave health monitoring to individuals.
A wellness program that’s actually about wellness would be entirely voluntary, not financially coercive. It wouldn’t collect any personal health information from employees. It wouldn’t weigh people or take their blood samples and be used as a data collection device for the companies own cost benefit.
We need to redefine wellness packages; wellness in the workplace 2.0 would be a total and complete employee benefit, not a company cost-saving measure, that improves the physical and mental wellbeing of every staff member; which is why we made Vitapass.