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The Price of Wellbeing for Employers

Pennies being tipped out of a glass jar

What's wrong with wellness?

When researching the elements of great company culture, I asked 100 HR professionals the following: what's the biggest struggle in workforce management that you never expected? 

The prevailing answer wasn't related to recruitment, retention or regulations. Instead, it was what should be a positive: wellness programmes. 

More than 6 in 10 HR professionals groused that efforts to improve employee health caused inordinate frustration and conflict, while getting them no closer to their goals. Any small business looking to cut absenteeism and healthcare costs by promoting fitness does not want to see their investment wasted. So, how can you put your wellness dollars where they will do the most good? To answer that, we learn from the mistakes of others.

Good intentions, bad choices

Three themes emerged when I sifted through the responses. Wellness initiatives that fail tend to have:

  • Vague goals
  • Ineffective frameworks
  • Lack of support

A great idea without a goal is a failed idea. Take gym memberships. The implied goal is that if the company pays, employees will work out and get in better shape. This should reduce absences and insurance costs related to injuries and illness, right?

Wrong. Getting something for free can devalue it. Reports from the example above showed that 90% of employees never used the gym, despite having free membership. Result? Money wasted.

Another example is standing desks. We all know that those who sit down all day at an office desk causes problems. But replacing all the desks to standing desks at once caused problems too, according to one respondent I surveyed. Suddenly, many employees experienced back and feet paint from standing all day. Adding expensive, ergonomic mats did not prevent a rise in worker compensation claims. Result? Health problems got worse.

Even a well-rounded programme that includes health education, yoga or meditation classes, and nutritious snacks, is destined to fail if the employees themselves don’t get on board. They might need a peer facilitator, extra time in their schedules, or a good example from company leaders to entice them to join.

A better approach

An effective wellness initiative can be a terrific boost to company culture, improving both morale and the work environment. But small and micro businesses can’t afford to get wellness wrong. If you’re implementing a program internally, without buying into a third-party platform, take the time to plan well, starting with measurable and achievable goals.

That better-fitness objective? Instead of handing out gym passes, the company could subsidize a range of workout options, letting employees choose what best motivates them. This might include an extra 20 minutes off to walk at lunchtime, or sponsoring a bowling or softball team, or matching funds for the gym—if participation at a certain level is documented.

Those standing desks? Why not start out with a trial period and a trial staff population to see how it goes? Survey them before and after to see which health or productivity issues did see improvement.

It may be that greater flexibility in work time or an emphasis on downtime will allow your employees to better manage their own health and fitness. In my fully remote company, for example, staff are free to work on their own schedules, when they feel most productive.

This means they can jog in the morning or walk the dog at lunchtime, as long as they meet their deadlines.

We also know that physical health is tied to mental wellbeing. So, my company encourages taking paid vacation or mental-health days, with a taboo on any work-related activity during that time. Everyone knows that “if you’re wired, you’re fired.” No phone calls. No logging onto the network until you’re rested and refreshed. Delete all emails when you get back. Out-of-office notes alert folks that business as usual will resume at a later date, so that no one returns to an even more stressful workload.

This kind of support is welcome, and it comes from the top. As CEO, I’m bound by the same healthy rules, and everyone can see that we’re all in it together. The simpler the plan and the more well-defined the goals, the easier the program is to implement, track, and make successful.

Just remember to take the long view, as you would regarding your own health. Quick fixes don’t work. Create a culture of wellness in your workplace, and it will self-perpetuate, producing maximum yield for a minimum investment. Solid wellness programs don’t take the place of broader cultural initiatives, but they sure do enhance them.