Workplace Wellness Grows Up
Creating a healthier work environment is far from a novel concept, its roots in Western corporate culture reaching back as far as Boeing’s pacesetting non-smoking-workplace policies of the 1980s, and the early-1970s craze for executive gyms and mandated annual physical fitness tests for upper management employees. This new mindset, pioneering in its time, was well summed up by Boeing’s then-president Malcolm Stamper, declaring that it is a company’s responsibility “to provide the cleanest, safest and most healthful environment possible for its employees.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Government in 1976 established the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which set benchmarks for improving worker and citizen health with its Citizen 2000 and Citizen 2020 initiatives, establishing the potential for a culture of workplace wellness that is already with us in many places, but unevenly distributed (even today, these are still first-world issues). And it will take more than an ergonomic chair and an open-plan workspace to have a significant impact on worker wellness, though these are a perfectly good start.
But workplace wellness is finally growing up, and it is beginning to look more fresh, inviting and—from the point of view of all concerned—worthwhile. This is why workplace wellness is such an important trend to watch.
While the idea of yoga classes at the office, lunch and learn education classes, or subsidized gym memberships is becoming more commonplace, with it comes the recognition that these “cosmetic” attempts haven’t really moved the needle on worker’s wellness.
In this new phase, we are moving into a “culture of wellness” and, at more advanced companies, a “culture of purpose.“ And efforts to create a culture of wellness and align workers with their purpose are beginning to show the results everyone is seeking: healthier and happier workers, lower healthcare costs, higher productivity, less absenteeism and less turnover.
As Dr. Ken Pelletier, a long time pioneer in workplace wellness, sums up this shift by saying, “We are moving from a goal of increased ROI (return on investment) to one of pursuing ROV (return on value).”
This shift is having a major impact on everyone who is in the workforce as on well as those who work in the field of spa and wellness. And these developments are creating more options for workers and new opportunities for wellness practitioners and educators, as well as establishments that deliver wellness services.
The major challenge is creating a culture of wellness within the worksite—coupled with recognition by senior management that integration and an organic sense of holistic wellness are an essential part of a successful and productive work environment. A widely held sense that healthier employees might have a positive impact upon productivity and company success has taken a long time to metastasize into an all-encompassing set of policies and programs that fuse company welfare to employee wellness. Often, wellness campaigns have centered upon annual checkups or smoking cessation programs for employees in isolation, without making them part of a thoroughgoing emphasis on worker health, satisfaction and productivity. This to some extent has removed workplace wellness from the company culture—as well as making it seem mildly coercive, on a par with compulsory factory-floor calisthenics, with the result that, at best, their effectiveness is blunted and limited, or at worst, they are seen cynically as intrusive corporate overreach.
Today, we are increasingly seeing activities promoting wellness that once took place in the domestic, off-duty sphere—gym visits, walks, yoga, meditation, spa treatments, even gripe sessions and venting spaces—are being integrated into the workplace environment. Meanwhile the resources of the company can be used to lessen other kinds of stress: companies can aid money-worried employees with intelligent financial counseling, thus unburdening their minds at work and increasing their productivity. Company health benefit programs can be sculpted to the needs of individuals and their families, and even benefits like pet health insurance can ease the mind of an animal-loving employee. A more flexible approach to paid time off, maternity (and increasingly, paternity) leave, and on-site childcare facilities can pay off in greater employee contentment, leading to increased productivity.
However, you can’t make beautiful music if all your notes are in the wrong order, and the need now is for the discrete and diverse policies already in existence to be unified into a single field-theory of worker wellness, codified and systematized where possible, or shaped to the needs of the individual employee, according to his or her particular needs. Either way, workers don’t necessarily have to join a specific program if wellness is seamlessly stitched into the everyday work environment.
FUELING THE TREND
The Current Approach Isn’t Working
Expensive workplace wellness initiatives that have underperformed need reconfiguring as part of a wholesale, rather than piecemeal, approach to worker wellness. Many programs developed by human resources departments are “siloed” in isolation from one another, limited in their reach and thus limited in their effectiveness, and more reactive than proactive. (Think weight loss programs rather than healthy food served onsite.) And these programs have yet to make a significant dent in employee engagement. A new survey of U.S. employees conducted by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) and Everyday Health reveals that 87 percent of employees feel disengaged at work. And while more than one half have access to a wellness program, only three out of 10 actually use it, and only one in 10 think it actually improves their health. Currently, the average Fortune 500 company spends an eye-watering 80 percent of its after-tax profits on employee medical costs—and “unwellness” at work costs the U.S. alone $2.2 trillion each year.
Global Recognition of the Importance of Wellness
The 2014 Gallup-Heathways Global Wellbeing Index measured individuals’ perceptions of their own wellbeing based on five elements: purpose, social, financial, community and physical. The results were then categorized as striving, struggling or suffering for each element. Not surprisingly, the Americas reported the highest levels of wellbeing in three or more categories and Sub-Saharan North Africa and the Middle East/North Africa the lowest, both regions where economic growth has failed to keep up with population growth. One sobering statistic: only 17 percent of the world’s population is thriving in three or more categories.
Perceptions of wellbeing are influenced in part by wealth and education, along with stable social structures, such as marriage or domestic partnerships. One of the study’s conclusions was that employers should move beyond a physical wellness focus to one that “includes all facets of an individual’s wellbeing,” and add programs like healthy food options and retirement counseling. The authors of the report also encouraged company leaders to embrace wellbeing habits and participate in wellness programs. Because this was a worldwide study, and to date most worker/workplace wellness programs take place in first world countries, there is hope that a global conversation will begin and wellness will become a reality in more parts of the world.
Need to Attract and Retain
In a hyper-competitive business environment, workers with the right talents and skills, and particularly the incoming, highly health-conscious Millennial generation, have options and will be prepared to exercise them. Companies stuck on the treadmill of old workplace practices will find fewer and fewer employees prepared to submit to an unhealthy work culture. In contrast, those employers that are prepared to address commonplace workplace wellness needs in an across-the-board, integrated manner, have one more arrow in their quiver to offer the undecided interviewee—and retain a high performing employee.
Facts That Speak for Themselves
The research from the GWI also estimates that investment in workplace wellness (now $40 billion globally) will “explode in the next five to 10 years.” (Today, the GWI estimates that only nine percent of the 3.2 billion workers worldwide have access to workplace wellness initiatives, with the U.S. way out in front at 52 percent.) At this early stage, integrated workplace wellness is still very much a first world, corporate phenomenon waiting to “trickle down”.
Some research has shown that a dollar investment in coherently-strategized worker wellness pays back a dividend in increased productivity, and as health-insurance costs have skyrocketed in recent decades, alongside a drop in overall levels of employee wellness, managers have begun to pay greater attention to a much broader array of direct and indirect impacts on worker welfare. A wide range of issues are being addressed, from stress-management and confronting rising obesity rates among a sedentary workforce, to flexible working hours and a healthier workspace, to less remarked-upon phenomena as money-management advice for stressed employees and generous family leave for both parents of newborns.
An increased understanding of the role that stress plays in both the workplace and the home (and between these two domains) has encouraged greater interest in on-site stress-reduction options such as yoga, meditation, simple “quiet time” spaces and mindfulness. Stress also migrates from home to office and vice versa, and programs that seek to mitigate this have concentrated on ancillary issues such as financial planning and security, a liberalized approach to paid time off (PTO), telecommuting, and family policies concerning more generous and flexible maternity leave and in-office childcare.
In a 2014 study of North America workers conducted by Spafinder Wellness 365 Research, employees reported on the top obstacles to their work productivity, which were: overall fatigue (55%); job stress (52 percent); not enough time in a day to accomplish tasks (47 percent); poor sleep (45 percent); financial worries (36 percent); family stress (29 percent); management doesn’t understand workload/stress levels (23 percent); and recurring aches/pains/medical ailments (21 percent). While fatigue and job stress were the top productivity killers for employees with and without a corporate wellness program, the “without” were more likely to cite fatigue (61 percent vs. 52 percent) and job stress (60 percent vs. 55 percent).
Economic and Social Forces
Globalization has brought with it a variety of trends that affect workplace wellness: rising economic insecurity and the stress associated with it, combined with shrinking benefits and low workforce engagement; a 24/7 work culture inherited from the boomer generation that does not sit well with the more health-oriented Millennial generation now taking its place in the workforce; the various and sometimes contradictory demands made by different generations of employees. The still-rising presence of women in the workforce is also a significant factor, further highlighting the need to address work-family balance, maternity health, childcare and gender roles in the workplace. Increasingly unhealthy lifestyles (often arising from the sedentary nature of office work) lead to increased, often unsustainable healthcare costs and the resultant need to tackle health issues head-on; and a better educated, more affluent and demanding young workforce whose rising expectations—and unwillingness to remain in one job for too long—are steadily fuelling innovations in workplace wellness.
A growing understanding of what employees want is being provided by forward-thinking wellness providers like Virgin Pulse and Wisdom Works, leading to advancements in the science behind changing unhealthful behaviors and habit
Companies have realized as well that they can hardly preach the virtues of wellness if they are demanding an unhealthful 12-hour workday from their employees.
ASPECTS OF THE TREND
Workplace Environment is Key
The old culture of sought-after corner offices, resentment-inducing closed doors and hierarchical office-apportionment has for a long time now been giving way to an open-plan, cubicle or partition-based approach to office design, enabling employees to feel part of a team whose members can look each other in the eye as they collaborate. The Washington Post has reported that about 70 percent of U.S. offices now have no or low partitions. Like many work trends, this one started in Silicon Valley, with Google, Yahoo, eBay, and others leading the charge. Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed workplace may be the state-of-the-art in this area, a 430,000 square foot open space that can house 2,800 employees. Those who find they need relief from co-workers can find it in the nine-acre garden on the roof of the building.
Efforts are also needed to mitigate the ill effects of the work environment, guaranteeing worker health and safety above all, avoidance of “sick building syndrome,” the prioritization of safety and the minimization of occupational hazards.
Healthy Choices = Healthier Employees
Tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are also leading the charge when it comes to feeding their employees as many as three square—and healthy—meals a day. But smaller companies like Yammer, StumbleUpon, DOMO, and Zynga also have free cafeterias or catering. Deloitte’s office building in Amsterdam, known as “The Edge”—dubbed “the smartest building in the world” by Bloomberg Business—takes it a step further: you can use an app to order a dinner recipe, and a bag of fresh ingredients will be ready for you when you leave for home.
Wellness How You Want It
The 2014 Spafinder Wellness study also found that if businesses want to get workers engaged with, and stick to, new, healthy behaviors, they need to provide them with access to a broader range of fitness/wellness activities that go beyond a traditional gym membership.
The survey found roughly nine in 10 employees who tried a new fitness/wellness activity felt inspired to continue it on a consistent basis (86 percent), plus, try other healthy classes/activities (93 percent). Over 90% returned to the new activity, with 33 percent continuing it regularly and of those that made it a regular health regime, 85 percent said it made them feel better physically; 72 percent indicated it made them mentally healthier/less stressed; and 38 percent said they were more productive and happier at work.
However, the survey also found corporate wellness programs are not doing enough to encourage employees to experiment with new classes/activities. Employees in corporate wellness programs were only modestly more likely (64 percent) to have ever been gifted/given free fitness or wellness activities than employees in companies without one (56 percent).
The End of Hierarchies
The Nevada-based online footwear-fashion company Zappos recently eliminated job titles and traditional manager roles, shifting instead to “holacracy.” The move required employees to adopt an entire new vocabulary and paradigm of work (codified in the company’s “holocracy constitution”). Hierarchies are giving way to the self-organizing teams working in unison towards a common goal.
The Privatized Commute
The daily commute—the ungoverned zone between work and home—can offer up its own smorgasbord of horrors and anxieties: delays, discomfort, bad weather, the whole “hell is other people” syndrome. All of these contribute as heavily to worker stress in one hour as a badly designed office can do in eight. To offset this phenomenon, companies—again led by Silicon Valley—have stepped in with their own transportation solutions. Private buses decked out in company colors and logos can be seen ferrying employees around town and to and from (and within) the company campus.
Non-Standard Working Hours
The conventional eight-hour day is slowly dying as telecommuting from home or the road becomes more widespread. Workfront’s annual State of Enterprise Work report found that 82 percent of office workers log into work outside of standard business hours during a typical work week; more than half (52 percent) log in every day. Weekends tell the same story, with 72 percent checking work or work email on some weekends and 39 percent logging in every weekend. Forward-thinking companies are beginning to address the problems associated with this growing work/life imbalance: more stressed employees, less productivity and more sick days.
More and more companies are offering perks like unlimited PTO (paid time off) and extended parental leave, particularly in the forward-looking, ultra-competitive tech industry. Netflix, Eventbrite, Ask.com, and Evernote already offer unlimited PTO policies, but even companies like General Electric and the Virgin Group are gradually catching on.
The Seattle Times recently reported on the parental leave trend, highlighting companies that far surpass the requirements of state and federal law, including Hilton Worldwide (two weeks paid leave, which is unusual for the hospitality industry), Accenture
(16 weeks paid leave), Microsoft (20 weeks paid leave), and Netflix (unlimited paid leave for both parents for a year after a birth or adoption). Some even offer cash bonuses to mothers-to-be for maternity clothes and baby gear.
Persistent immersion in the work culture is also more often seen as damaging to the worker first and to the company shortly thereafter. Workaholicism, overwork and their milder variants are problems that can be dealt with through approaches like mandated vacation time and encouraging employees to “un-plug” from work once office hours are over. More and more companies realize that worker health and a
12-hour workday are irreconcilable.
Workplace wellness is growing up but companies that embrace these new philosophies and approaches towards workplace wellness still remain the pioneering exception rather than the rule. As of now, conceiving worker wellness as an integrated set of ideas is still a first-world phenomenon. However, there is a growing realization that the profit-maximizing business model cannot be lasting, useful or even morally acceptable as long as it doesn’t take into account the human aspect. The upcoming Millennial generation, as it prepares to take its place in the managerial tier, is not as content merely to accept these things as preceding generations have been, and their increased presence in the workforce will drive change and innovation.
As more employers come to understand that the welfare of their companies is intricately tied in with the health of the workers they employ, we will see the steadily increased linkage of workplace policies and worker wellness. And there is no shortage of clear financial inducements. For example, one study presented at the Global Wellness Summit showed that companies nurturing a culture of health, by specifically focusing on the wellbeing and safety of their workers, have outperformed the stock market by a factor of 2.3:1 from 2000-2015. The companies that fail to offer wholesale, holistic solutions to wellness—by paying mere lip-service to notions of employee wellness, or providing superficial solutions that fail to address real worker needs and issues in real time—will find themselves losing valuable, motivated employees to those companies that do offer such advantages.
We will gradually see the increased prevalence of the across-the-board approach to worker wellness, beginning with preventative approaches to problems that need never arise if addressed early, thoroughly and intelligently enough (stress, diet, comfort, restfulness, work-life balance etc.). Stale, self-destructive and outdated paradigms like the workaholic 70-hour week, the miserly allotment of vacation-time (is two weeks ever enough?) an inflexible approach to working hours, sick time, maternity leave (and paternity leave), user-hostile workspaces and coin-slot snack machines instead of healthy food options, will all soon enough be seen as counter-productive and self-defeating not only to employee wellness and welfare, but as an active threat to a company’s bottom line, and to its ability to attract and retain the best workers. More companies around the world will see the wisdom of time-off concepts offered in Europe (four weeks to a year). Ideally, such innovations, broadly and intelligently applied, will drive healthcare costs downwards, increase employee wellbeing and serve as a model for the future relationship between work and wellness.
Above all, in response to the needs of more health-conscious employees, forward-looking employers have begun to take more seriously the notion of work-life balance. People everywhere want a healthy work environment, including comfortable and ergonomic furniture in a non-hierarchical office layout. They want aspects of their home life, like healthy eating options and the chance for exercise and relaxation, available in the workplace as well. This has encouraged the gradual, holistically based interlacing of wellness maintenance inside and outside the worksite.
And all of these developments will create new opportunities for wellness practitioners and educators, as companies seek to hire yoga and meditation instructors, nutrition and stress-reduction specialists, massage therapists and more.
Workplace wellness is growing up and finally the people it was meant to affect—employees—will reap the benefits.
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