Workplace wellness programs in various forms have been around since about the late 1970s. Many employers view these programs as an employee “benefit”. However, successful wellness programs have been found to be a factor in identifying and preventing chronic illnesses while also promoting a culture of wellness in the workplace. The RAND report 1, one of the first comprehensive research survey studies into the effectiveness of these programs, found in 2010 that about half of U.S. employers of 50 or more employees had some sort of workplace wellness program. Most center around screening, chronic illness “intervention”, and disease prevention. Primary prevention includes “lifestyle management” (i.e., diet and exercise); secondary prevention includes chronic disease management (i.e., adherence to prescribed medications).
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the U.S. was spending about $1.2 trillion a year on medical costs in 2010. That number has now reached $3.3 trillion with about 90% going towards chronic diseases and mental health conditions. 2
Additionally, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has found that productivity losses related to personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers more than $225 billion annually. The indirect costs of poor health – including absenteeism, disability and reduced work output – are even higher. 3 In 2012, NIOSH published its own research into the coordination and/or integration of worksite health promotion with an occupational health/safety program as a means of enhancing the effectiveness of efforts to promote and overall protect worker health. 4
Integrating Wellness and Occupational Safety Programs
With the controversy still swirling about providing workplace incentives that might possibly influence employees NOT to report injuries, a wellness program is a great way to keep employees engaged and motivated to think and act on their personal health issues. Incentives for participation in wellness programs are not only encouraged, but they also play an important role in helping establish and build the program.
To this end, NIOSH published its “Fundamentals of Total Worker Health™ Approaches – Essential Elements for Advancing Worker Safety, Health, and Well-Being”. 5 They explain the program as “A Total Worker Health (TWH) approach defined as policies, programs, and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness–prevention efforts to advance worker well-being.” 6
Establishing and Implementing a Wellness Program
To help guide employers, the CDC also launched its Work@Health® training and technical assistance program to assist employers in developing their programs. The purpose is to have a healthier workforce – benefiting individual employees and yielding greater productivity, as well as lower healthcare and workers’ compensation costs for employers. 7
Step 1 – Strategic Planning: Before considering implementation of a workplace wellness program, an organization should determine its desired outcomes and why it wants to get there. Will it help both employees and the company? Reduce injury and/or healthcare costs? Improve productivity, employee morale and engagement? The goals of the wellness program need to be in alignment with the company’s business objectives to be effective and worthwhile.
Step 2 – Form a Wellness Committee: Depending on how big the organization is, forming a group or committee to oversee the implementation of the program helps with the logistics, communication, budgeting, and buy-in from senior management.
Step 3 – Partnership with Professionals: Once the organization has identified its goals, the next step is to partner with a professional wellness provider that can assist with implementing a platform that works for the organization. The provider’s established programs, databases and technical resources should be used to enhance the organization’s wellness program.
Step 4 – Use an Onsite Wellness “Coach”: The organization should consider an on-site “engagement” professional or coach to help coordinate programs and provide one-on-one training advice and recommendations to individual employees.
Step 5 – Integrate Wellness with Safety Programs: Working with safety professionals – for the purpose of identifying and evaluating jobs/tasks that have had a history of injuring employees – allows the wellness coach to focus on problem areas to prevent injuries and, in time, reduce workers’ compensation claims and costs. Having the coach work one-on-one with employees and treat them in a manner similar to a professional athletic trainer increases the potential for the success of early intervention. This is not a new concept, but it is effective on several fronts. Personalized exercise and “job hardening” programs can build confidence and individual motivation. Building that connection and focusing on what’s important to these “industrial athletes” sends a valuable message that every employee is important.
Step 6 – Rounding out the Program: The organization should consider adding the following to its wellness program to foster communication and additional employee engagement:
- Ensure senior management buy-in and participation by kicking off the program with a manager-level “Welcome Letter” – explaining the program and its value to both employees and the organization.
- Add pre-shift warm-up and appropriate stretching exercise programs.
- Establish contests centered around tracking employees use of gym facilities and recording of healthy habits – communicating and celebrating employee contest “winners”.
- Identify safe walking paths around the facility with established distances to facilitate use and ease tracking of milestones and individual accomplishments.
- Establish “heath stations” around the facility to allow employees to self-monitor pulse and blood pressure.
- Provide healthy “Tips of the Day” through mass emails.
HETI’s Certified Industrial Hygienists and safety professionals are available to assist employers with a variety of services – to establish and implement Wellness Programs that are right for their organizations…and to integrate them with their Occupational Safety Programs.
1 RAND Report – Workplace Wellness Programs Study Final Report (Soeren Mattke, Hangsheng Liu, John P. Caloyeras, Christina Y. Huang, Kristin R. Van Busum, Dmitry Khodyakov, Victoria Shier), RAND Health, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010
6 The Research Compendium: The NIOSH Total Worker Health™ Program: Seminal Research Papers, 2012, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2012-146/