Employers Worldwide Step Up Investments in Workers’ Wellness
The workplace has been identified as a valuable setting to improve population health globally. The rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and work-related stress is impacting workplaces of all sizes in terms of sick, disengaged and unproductive employees. This has led to a sharpened focus on proactive health improvement strategies at the workplace. The business community increasingly recognizes health promotion as a human capital strategy to improve productivity and gain competitive advantage.
While business drivers and health challenges at the workplace are similar across countries, with some variations albeit, programs and communication strategies differ considerably as documented by the 2014 Global Survey on Health Promotion, Workplace Wellness and Productivity Strategies (by Buck Consultants). The survey respondents identified the following as top objectives driving wellness strategies:
- Improving workforce morale / engagement
- Reducing sick leave and disability
- Improving workplace safety
- Reducing presenteeism / improving employee productivity
The United States cites reducing health care costs as the main objective due to its unique health care system in which employers feel the direct cost impact of unhealthy employees.
Stress represents the leading health challenge facing employers and employees globally followed by physical activity/exercise and nutrition/healthy eating. This is not surprising as the number of mental illness cases and long-term absentees has increased sharply in recent years in many countries. It is important to point out that workplace safety remains the top challenge in Asia, Latin America and Middle East/Africa.
Potentially one of the most alarming findings from the Global Survey is that only 52 percent of employers worldwide are measuring specific outcomes from their wellness programs. In the U.S., 59 percent of employers say they don’t know if their wellness programs are having an impact on health care cost trend (their top-stated objective). These findings underline the need for more awareness and education around evaluation as well as for systematic planning aligned with a continuous improvement cycle.
Encouraging is the trend of increasing globalization of employers’ wellness programs among multinational companies with 56 percent of the mulitnationals surveyed implementing a global wellness strategy. This has occurred in spite of major challenges due to differing cultures, laws and practices around the world.
Other key findings of the Global Health Promotion Survey include:
- Human Resource (HR) polices related to flexible work arrangements and paid time off ranked as the number one component of wellness programs globally, with Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) ranking number two, driven by their prevalence in the U.S., Canada, Africa and Australia.
- Health risk appraisals (HRA) are a common programming tool with 69 percent offering an HRA today (83 percent in the US).
- Employee wellness communication – with personalization of employee messages – is closely linked to health care cost trend reduction. One hundred percent of the U.S. companies reporting a lower health care cost trend of six or more percentage points send their employees targeted wellness emails. The use of wellness mailings to employees’ homes also is on the rise, recognizing the influence that household members have on each other’s health.
- Posters/flyers remain a widely used communication channel and just as popular as a web portal/intranet.
Where is Workplace Wellness Going?
Based on the Global Survey findings workplace wellness offers a lot of promise and global growth, however, it remains a young field, which has not yet fully established itself in the global business world. Given the concerning disease and demographic trends and the resulting negative impact on productivity, continued growth and investment in wellness is inevitable. Nevertheless, more evidence and standardization is needed. While a number of quality studies show that workplace health promotion programs produce a return-on-investment (ROI) the field still lacks widely adopted quality standards. The World Health Organization (WHO) Healthy Workplace Framework (recently published) provides an opportunity in this regard as the framework gives global guidance on how to create healthy workplaces and propagates a comprehensive as well as integrated approach, which is applicable universally.