Busting 3 Myths About Employee Wellness Programs

Fitness fads like the Atkins Diet, INSANITY and whatever is going on here will always come and go, but employee wellness programs are here to stay. According to a study by SHRM, nearly 60 percent of all U.S. employers offered some form of wellness program to workers last year.

Given that these programs have been proven to improve recruiting efforts and increase worker productivity, it’s no wonder they’ve become so popular.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the spread of misinformation regarding what employee wellness programs are and aren’t, and what they can and can’t accomplish. This is causing small and midsize businesses (SMBs) to mismanage their wellness efforts or avoid adopting them entirely.

Well, readers: put on those yoga pants, choke down that kelp smoothie and hold your plank for just a little big longer, because it’s time to separate fact from fiction.

With help from the Gartner report, “Employee Wellness: What You Need to Know Before Planning” (content available to Gartner clients), here are three common myths, and the actual underlying truths, regarding employee wellness programs.

Myth #1: Wellness Programs Are Just Employees Exercising at Work

The truth: Physical activity is just one of six (!) components of employee wellness.

There’s no doubt that regular exercise is an important part of employee wellness programs. If you’re an HR manager at a small business coordinating weekly yoga classes at the office or encouraging walks during lunch breaks, you’re doing the right thing (especially if your workers do a lot of sitting).

If you think that means you’re offering a true employee wellness program though, you’re wrong.

The reality is that a comprehensive employee wellness program strategy involves six components, according to Gartner:

The Six Components of Employee Wellness Programs

 

As the graphic shows, planning physical activities for your workers is just the first building block of an employee wellness program. If your small business is looking to promote total well-being in the workplace, the other five components are just as, if not more, important.

Here’s what these different components are in more detail:

  • Physical activities: Organizing and promoting any form of physical exercise, from walking and yoga to weight training and group sports.
  • Healthy dietary options: Offering healthy food options at work and educating employees on the benefits of healthy eating.
  • Social activities: Planning group activities outside of work that promote collaboration and social well-being (Yes, this includes happy hours).
  • Disease management: Implementing processes like flexible work arrangements (FWAs), biomedical screenings and medication reminders to help employees manage chronic illnesses.
  • Volunteering activities: Providing opportunities for workers to help out local charities and nonprofit organizations.
  • Gamification and collaboration: Engaging employees in wellness initiatives through points systems, leaderboards and real-life rewards.

 TAKEAWAY FOR SMBS:  When figuring out your employee wellness strategy, focus on the breadth of your program (touching on all six components) rather than the depth (adding more physical activities). You can tinker with this mix as you gather data and learn which components provide the best benefits.

Myth #2: Lifestyle Changes From Wellness Efforts Will Save You Money

The truth: If cost-savings is your goal, focus on sickness over fitness.

It would be great if employers were embracing wellness programs solely out of the goodness of their heart, but the truth is much more financially motivated. Studies like this one from The RAND Corporation found that for every $1 that employers invest in wellness programs, they receive $1.50 in return.

But where does this return come from, exactly? The prevailing thought is that lifestyle changes from wellness efforts (e.g., smokers quitting smoking, sedentary workers getting active, fast food junkies eating salads) save employers money on insurance costs by creating a healthier workforce that doesn’t get as sick and doesn’t require as many hospital visits.

Well, that’s not true. According to that same RAND study, lifestyle changes account for only 13 percent of employer health care savings from wellness programs. The more important 87 percent comes from disease management efforts.

Employer Health Care Cost Savings From Wellness Programs

 

While it’s true that you will cut costs in the long run from lifestyle management initiatives related to exercise and diet, the bulk of your savings will come in the short-term, by simply reminding diabetic workers to take their insulin.

 TAKEAWAY FOR SMBS:  If your goal with employee wellness is to save money, don’t shirk on disease management—even if that means focusing on a few workers with chronic illnesses over the many healthy ones. Consider tracking employee medications in your HRIS (with their consent, of course) and adopting flexible work arrangements to cater to worker needs.

On the other hand, if reducing mental fatigue and absences is your goal, lifestyle management should take priority.

Myth #3: Employee Wellness Programs Improve All Aspects of Performance

The truth: It’s still unclear if wellness efforts impact stress levels and engagement.

You know how every fitness trend on TV promises six-pack abs and sculpted muscles with little or no effort at all? Employee wellness programs can fall into a similar trap. Small businesses expect wellness programs to act as a cure-all for every worker woe, then when that doesn’t happen, they’re disappointed.

Take stress reduction, for example. It’s not a strange leap in logic to assume that if employees get some time away from their desk to get some exercise in, that they’ll be able to mentally unpack.

Yet one meta analysis study found that while the introduction of physical wellness activities were associated with a “significant reduction” in depressive symptoms and anxiety among workers, the impact on stress levels was inconclusive.

The effects of wellness initiatives on employee engagement and enthusiasm for their job are similarly dubious.

While a mental health study did find that the introduction of a “walking intervention” (mandated walking periods for inactive employees during the day) decreased fatigue and increased performance, it also reported “no significant improvements in the self-reported enthusiasm of employees.”

 TAKEAWAY FOR SMBS:  As Gartner points out, “there is a lack of definitive evidence confirming and quantifying the benefits of employee wellness and physical activity initiatives.”

More research is needed, but in the meantime don’t assume wellness programs are either completely bogus or the ultimate solution. Define your goals with care and only gather data in areas where you can expect wellness initiatives to have a meaningful impact (e.g., participation rates, health care costs, productivity etc.).

Next Steps

There’s one last myth we want to bust, and that’s employee wellness is merely a “benefit” in the same vein as PTO and stock options. Small businesses that think of it in this way are doomed to not give their program the care and focus it needs to thrive. As Gartner puts it:

“Employee wellness should not purely be provided in the form of self-elected employee benefit, but should take the form of a multicomponent strategy that works alongside other workforce management and talent management tools and initiatives to holistically support the employee.”

Wellness is not a side initiative, but rather the third piece of the worker support puzzle along with workforce management and talent management. Here are some next steps to start treating it as such:

  • Prepare for a lot of dropouts. It’s completely common for workers to initially show enthusiasm for a newly implemented wellness program only to drop out en masse not long after. Don’t give up! Keep promoting activities, add variety, recognize achievement, appoint wellness champions and coaches and add gamification elements via wearable devices like the popular Fitbit to win them back.
  • Balance inclusivity with targeted personalization. Every activity or initiative in your wellness program should be as inclusive as possible, but if you see adoption waning in different demographics (age, gender, physical ability, personality type etc.), don’t be afraid to cater more to these groups.

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