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by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.
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Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

Two Questions About Worksite Wellness: 1) Does It Work and 2) Is It Wellness?

Sunday March 11, 2007

Workplace wellness has been around been for decades. Has it worked as promised and intended? Has it accomplished what advocates promised? In short, what has it accomplished and has the programming really been wellness in nature, or something else. If "else," then what?

The stated goals of worksite wellness programs have been to encourage employees to remain or become healthy, to reduce employee absenteeism and health care costs, to increase productivity, enhance morale, attract and retain high-quality employees and create a positive "Return On Investment" (ROI). If worksite wellness programs accomplished half these goals, they would be rated a very good investment. So, have they done so?

To make this judgment, a focus on specific objectives is necessary. The main objectives of wellness programs, which go by different names (worksite health promotion being the most common), are: 

  1. Identify and reduce behaviors that put employees at higher risks of morbidity and mortality.

  2. Lower organizational medical care costs.

  3. Decrease absenteeism, poor performance, turnover and other negative indices that do not add value.

  4. Increase employee effectiveness, job satisfaction, retention and productivity.

So, is the jury in? Has a verdict been rendered? Have those who proclaimed worksite wellness a good investment been acquitted, found to be telling the truth? Or, are they guilty, guilty as charged of exaggerations and bloated claims by critics who see little payback for worksite wellness to date? Which is it?

I have a verdict to offer on count one (Does worksite wellness work?). Are you ready? Here it is: Yes, it works. Promoters of worksite wellness are NOT GUILTY of false claims and INNOCENT of wasting organizational money or making bloated claims. This can be stated on the basis of studies and a review of specific programs in relation to the amounts of money spent. (Obviously, "success" has to be related to the costs in time, labor and funds invested in efforts to make things better. A pittance has been spent; modest benefits have been realized.) Basically, worksite efforts that focused on risk reduction and the other objectives noted above have had a modest but positive economic impact. That's a good thing. The quantitative nature of such returns for corporate America cannot be determined with high confidence, given the limits of varied assessment studies. One source cites 42 qualified evaluation studies that met ten criteria of worthiness. These reports support a finding of "average reductions in total amount/rates of increase of health plan cost of 25% or more." (Source: Larry Chapman, "Meta-Evaluation of Worksite Health Promotion Economic Return Studies," Art of Health Promotion Newsletter, Vol. 6, No 6, January/February 2003.)

So, that addresses the first question -- Does worksite wellness work? Yes, it seems that it does, to an extent that justifies the time and expense required. The next question is more important, in my view: Are worksite wellness initiatives really wellness programs?

It depends. It depends on what you mean by wellness. If your idea of wellness is a mindset or philosophy inspired by a strong sense of personal responsibility for shaping and fine-tuning a quality lifestyle, then no, worksite wellness has not been attempted. Some elements of wellness have been included, but by and large worksite efforts are focused on risk reduction, cost savings and the prevention of ill health. Good objectives, to be sure, but not wellness. Do you agree?

Corporate worksite "wellness" is to date medical in nature, not addressed to life enhancement (as opposed to reducing one's own or the company's medical expenses). Worksite programs involved medical questionnaires, health checks and other forms of behavior evaluations addressed to medical issues and varied risk factors. The services include preventive care, screenings, education, counseling, and disease prevention and management. The most popular activities are appraisals, health fairs, self-help programs, medical newsletters, home fitness products, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and a potpourri of single topic lectures.

Real worksite wellness programs would focus on life quality education and support. Employees would be given ample opportunities to learn about lifestyle enrichment matters. These would include but certainly not be limited to the dynamics of happiness, humor, play, meaning and purpose, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, self-management and even life skills needed for business success. Positive wellness programming would steer clear of medical issues or poor habits (delegate that to the medical departments) in order to focus on qualities needed for working and living wisely in a complex world.

Well, the future lies ahead. In the next essay, I offer a few ideas about what a REAL worksite wellness program might look like.

All the best. Look on the bright side.

Domain: mental
Subdomain: factual knowledge

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