The pros and cons of corporate wellness programs

Workers want to work in an environment in which their need for leadership, connection and, yes, self-care, is taken seriously.

If you told most CEOs that creating a workplace wellness culture – not just a free fitness class – could quadruple return on investment, many corporate environments would undergo immediate and radical change.

In a new working world that is increasingly dominated by millennials, the old values or style of working – as hard as possible for as long as possible – are being phased out.

Today’s worker, pressured by a fast-changing, global workplace, wants more than remuneration. They want to work in an environment in which their need for leadership, connection and, yes, self-care, is taken seriously.

The 2018 Global Talent Trends Study by Mercer, the world’s largest human resources consulting firm, found that one in two employees would like to see a greater focus on wellbeing – physical, psychological and financial.

However, with the wellness at work industry now valued at US$48 billion, according to the Global Wellness Institute, it can be tempting to jump on the corporate wellness bandwagon without considering whether the programs that are implemented will be effective, inspire commitment, or elevate corporate culture.

Wellness program versus wellness culture

A workplace wellness program is usually a health promotion activity that targets a specific health issue or wellness aspiration, says Renee Moorefield, speaker, strategist and CEO of Wisdom Works, a Colorado-based management consulting firm.

“For example, an employer may offer employees a healthy eating program as part of tackling healthcare costs linked with lifestyle-related disease,” she says. “This is very useful; however, it doesn’t address the larger work environment that empowers, or erodes, wellness.

“A culture of wellness means fostering a work environment where people thrive. This happens through a holistic approach, where the wellbeing of people is core to the mission, vision and values, strategies, and leadership approaches of an organisation, along with the organisation’s systems, structures, policies and processes, and the built environment,” Moorefield says.

At the heart of committing to a culture of wellness is reinventing workplaces around a new belief: human beings are designed with an inherent capacity to thrive, she says.

The reality is that employees need a set of wellness and life skills to cope with the ever-changing pace and demands, and the new ability to work 24/7 if they don’t have boundaries, says Shannah Kennedy, co-founder of The Essentialists, who, with business partner Lyndall Mitchell, has taught masterclasses in wellness to clients including Macquarie Bank, Deloitte and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

"Wellness at work includes providing a new core of skills, or personal protective behaviour, that looks at a whole person and their whole life." Elizabeth Kirk, Beyond Ergo

Rather than implement a token corporate wellness program, such as a monthly yoga class, or a paid day off to do voluntary work, leaders need to realise the value in investing in self-development and the overall culture of the company, she says.

Daniel Remon, CEO of Fitcorp, a leading corporate wellness, executive coaching and human performance company based in Bangkok, agrees: “Wellness is not achieved through offering a fitness class.

“Wellness, or healthy behaviour, is a result of employees being coached to have the ability to manage time, stress and energy; to communicate openly, and be resourceful in self-leadership or finding solutions.”

While an understanding of nutrition, or fitness, and how it impacts overall wellbeing and productivity is also important, ultimately wellness is about healthy engagement, Remon says, and engagement is productivity.

“Productivity is about being able to work effectively, manage expectations and be resilient,” he says.

Stress management and return on investment

The oft-touted figures of unwell workplaces are grim, with disengaged leaders and staff a serious impediment to the bottom line.

Presenteeism costs the Australian economy more than A$34 billion annually, while chronic pain costs A$48.3 billion a year in lost productivity, says Elizabeth Kirk, founder of Beyond Ergo, a company that builds the self-care competencies employees need to make educated health, safety and wellness decisions.

“Wellness at work includes providing a new core of skills, or personal protective behaviour, that looks at the whole person and their whole life,” she says.

Workplaces that include flexible work arrangements, foster a sense of community, encourage open communication and psychological safety, have fitness and health benefits in place, provide counselling support services, and encourage their people to take regular breaks or time out – all of which are in operation at SEEK – are just some examples of what companies can do to promote the health and wellbeing of their people, says Kathleen McCudden, the company’s group HR director.

“The best companies realise they need to proactively promote wellbeing for their employees across all dimensions of health and institute holistic wellbeing policies,” she says.

A study by KPMG and Mental Health Australia found that investing in mental health initiatives, such as resilience training and stress management, can deliver returns ranging from A$1.30 to A$4.70 for every A$1 invested.

Worldwide, the cost of unwell workers represents 10 per cent to 15 per cent of global economic output, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

"Corporate wellness is modelled from the top - so often, leaders are the ones working incredibly long hours, and are overtired and stressed as they run from one meeting to the next." Edwin Trevor-Roberts, Trevor-Roberts

Mondelez International, one of the largest food manufacturers in Australia and New Zealand, with iconic brands including Cadbury and Pascall and approximately 2000 employees, is driving a wellness focused culture supported by a holistic program called “The Right You”, which offers support across four pillars – mind, body, purpose, and place.

“We invest in expert-led workshops and forums to get people thinking about each of the pillars, and then strengthen the focus through active and consistent campaigns led by passionate internal colleagues,” says Craig Taylor, senior director of human resources at Mondelez Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

“The program has a strong diversity and inclusion focus, where we are seeking to celebrate everyone as individuals who feel comfortable enough to bring their true selves to work.”

Taylor says it is generally a low financial investment, although a high initial time investment, which is aimed at reducing health risk factors the company knows result in lost productivity.

“There is also a range of longer-term benefits to the program, such as improved engagement and enhanced ability to attract the best people to our business in a very competitive jobs market.”

Rethinking the nature of work

The question for business is not how much a wellness culture will cost to implement, but what the cost is of not creating it, Kennedy says.

“We have seen burnout, mental health conditions and autoimmune diseases on the rise, with the levels of stress people are now experiencing, as well as relationship breakdowns and, overall, people feeling like they are just surviving and not thriving.

“We spend most of our waking day in the workplace, so education, programs and workshops that feed an authentic and deep culture of care will bring out the best in people, and give them a sense of fulfilment in life. The churn and burn no longer cuts it.”

At SEEK, the company recently introduced a new leave policy called personal flexi-leave.

“This is a company-provided benefit that allows five days of additional paid leave per year on top of annual leave,” McCudden says.

“It is not a replacement for sick leave. Rather, it provides flexibility for people to take the time out they need to attend to personal commitments and proactively look after their health and wellbeing.”

Some people may argue that, rather than a wellness culture or a corporate wellness program, companies need to ensure people have fewer working hours or, at least, no unpaid overtime.

However, keynote speaker and career architect Edwin Trevor-Roberts, CEO of career management firm Trevor-Roberts, says what we really need to do to protect employee wellbeing is rethink the very nature of work.

“We are still stuck in an industrial model where we focus on inputs, not outputs,” he says.

“At the same time, the pace of business today means people are always working under strain, with no in-between or recovery time.”

Long working hours and stress are symptoms of the inability of staff or leaders to manage time, energy or relationships effectively, caused by poor communication, ineffective training, support or direction, Remon says.

As part of implementing a wellness culture, he suggests that leaders restrict meeting times, institute standing or walking meetings, employ effective followup strategies and offer creative or reflection time as well as phone-off time and a policy of no emails after work.

Employers with a successful corporate wellness culture tend to focus on a variety of drivers, including communication, morale, senior management buy-in, tracking return on investment, strategic planning and dedicated staff , says the Mercer report.

“They also ask questions such as, ‘How do I promote wellness, self-awareness and development in my employees so they are able to help this business succeed?’,” Trevor-Roberts says.

“As with any culture, corporate wellness is modelled from the top – so often, leaders are the ones working incredibly long hours, and are overtired and stressed as they run from one meeting to the next.

“Nothing stands out more than a senior executive who walks at a measured pace between meetings and spends dedicated time in critical reflection and strategising.”

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