As far back as 2008, the World Economic Forum, together with Pricewaterhouse Coopers, recommended that companies prioritise employee wellbeing in order to protect the sustainability of business. In the face of a rising incidence of chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle-related illnesses, wellness programs were identified as a way of ensuring the continued availability of a healthy workforce. This represented a shift away from the traditional model for health and wellbeing, one in which the onus was generally placed entirely on the individual. It suggested a new model, one of shared responsibility, in which companies and their people both play a role in creating and supporting wellbeing.
It may not have made many headlines but that report is still a big event. On the basis of current levels of chronic illness, work stress, and physical inactivity, we can say that the traditional model – that of individual responsibility – has largely failed. For many people who have a busy job, a commute, a family, financial pressures, and plenty of demands on their spare time, also being solely responsible for personal wellbeing simply adds up to an unbalanced equation. Given the attention that career, children and finances need, many people find their only option is to let wellbeing slide, waiting for a later, less busy period in their lives.
There is an unfortunate consequence to this which may go unnoticed, namely that this is also likely to negatively affect a person’s productivity. In other words, it’s not just bad for them, it’s also bad for their employer. Put simply, it’s a form of waste. Research shows that it is not just fully developed medical conditions that affect productivity. Even things as simple as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and physical inactivity – commonly termed ‘health risk factors’ – can also impact productivity levels, with research suggesting that this might be by as much as 2 to 3 per cent for each factor. Someone with several of these risk factors can easily have their productivity affected by 5 to 10 per cent, a significant cost to any employer. Not to mention the potential cost to the individual, in the form of a reduced quality of life.
Which is why PwC identified wellness programs as being so important to the sustainability of business. A wellness program can in effect act as leverage in creating a healthier lifestyle, providing people not just with information around health but with direct opportunities for lifestyle improvement. On-site exercise with suitable coaching and monitoring can be built on in the person’s free time to create a more active lifestyle. Active commuting can be a part of this, but is not always an option due to distance. Strategies for stress reduction, such as workshops or classes can deliver techniques that can be used at home as well as at work. Health screening programs can raise a person’s awareness of how they are doing regarding their health, something they may not frequently get around to doing on their own.
Ultimately, it is not only the content of a wellness program but the impact that it has on employees’ lifestyles that determines it’s success. Understandably, some of the work of creating wellbeing has to be done by the employee during their own time. But the program can act as a stimulus towards this additional action. If it produces lasting lifestyle change among employees, the program will most likely result in happier, healthier people who are more engaged and more consistently productive. These outcomes are where the value for an employer arises and are ultimately the justification for investment in a program.