Do Wellness Programs Make Employees More Productive? The Obvious Answer Is Yes.
Prime Time TV and Radio Show Host, Author, Speaker
Right now, we're smack dab in the middle of flu season. I got sick a while back, and it took me weeks to shake it off. And virtually everyone in my Sioux Falls office has done battle with a cold or the flu. Overall? Few people have been lucky enough not to get sick . . . yet.
Coming down with a cold or the flu has nothing to do with your fitness level or habits. Yet, companies are investing in the well-being of their employees by establishing wellness programs in an effort to not only to keep their staffers healthy, but to save money on rising healthcare costs.
Wellness programs' reach
Corporate wellness programs are nearly an $8 billion industry in the United States alone, and the segment is expected to grow another 7.8 percent by 2021. Globally, it’s a $40 billion industry, despite the fact that approximately only 9 percent of the roughly 3 billion global workforce has access to wellness programs, according to the Global Wellness Institute.
In recent years, a shift has occurred in the way we view not just fitness but overall wellness. According to the Centers for Disease Foundation, worker illness and injuries cost U.S. employers $225.8 billion annually, or $1,685 per employee. In addition, $1 trillion is lost due to unaddressed employee chronic disease each year, according to the Milken Institute.
As baby boomers have begun to retire, millennials have become the largest generation fully employed. As a result, many companies have wellness programs in place, because of their allure for young professionals. And that allure extends beyond millennials, because professionals of every generation today are more in tune with their health and well-being than ever before.
That makes wellness programs less of a perk than a routine offering. The result is that more than 9 in 10 organizations offer at least one wellness initiative, according to a 2017 survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. And the reason for these initiatives' popularity is clear: Wellness programs provide busy employees and executives opportunities to improve their health without sacrificing their free (or family) time.
Those opportunities come down to five critical benefits that today's wellness programs can offer:
Improved employee health behaviors
Reduced risk of elevated health risks
Reduced healthcare costs
What's also significant about wellness programs is that they are designed to change the behavioral patterns that can lead to chronic illness like asthma, heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. Forty-five percent of the population has at least one of these chronic diseases, which are responsible for 7 out of every 10 U.S. deaths.
That's why when employees change their behavior, the result is lower healthcare costs for employers. A study by the University of Louisville found that every dollar invested in a wellness program generated $7 in healthcare savings. The study also revealed that changing certain behaviors decreased the average number of health risks among employees from 5 or more health risks to 0 to 3 risks.
Productivity is another factor affected when employees aren’t at their best, physically and mentally. Poor employee productivity refers to a scenario where someone is physically present at work, but "not there" mentally. The cause can be multiple factors: lack of sleep, headaches, mental health problems or even financial problems. A survey by the Employee Benefit News magazine said that 31 percent of respondents rated mental illness as the number one reason for loss of productivity.
This is important, because with one in four adults experiencing some type of mental illness, wellness programs have become about more than just physical health. That's why adding mental illness to overall wellness is now synonymous with physical wellness. We all lead fast lives, and that can cause our stress levels to skyrocket.
Lack and loss of productivity due to health reasons can also lead to absenteeism. According to a CDC study, absenteeism costs small employers between $16 and $81 per employee annually, and large employers between $17 and $286. The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey also found that among employers offering and measuring wellness efforts, more than half saw a decrease in absenteeism, while 66 percent reported increased productivity and 67 percent said employees are more satisfied.
It’s no secret that healthy employees are productive employees, but employers and corporate leaders need to ensure that wellness programs are all-encompassing. They need to recognize that the more they invest in their employees, the more they get back. It’s that simple.
What about the C-suite?
With employees taken care of, what about corporate leaders and other busy, jet-lagging C-suite executives?
If you’re anything like me, you're always on the go -- always moving from one city to the next, event after event. I will admit that my health hasn’t always been a priority for me; going to the doctor was always a last-minute resort, even when I needed surgery for a detached retina. From that experience, I learned that our health is our most valuable possession.
And that reminds me of comments I heard from Ari Cukier, COO of Elitra Health. Cukier was one of many interesting business executives I meet for my podcast. And during our interview he explained the importance of establishing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and how important it is to receive preventive care.
He also talked about the need he sees within the executive industry because, he said, these people don’t practice what they preach. Specifically, they want their employees to be physically and mentally fit, but they’re always postponing their own doctors’ visits or not even bothering to make appointments because of their busy schedules.
That's where Cukier's company comes in. By having all of the necessary equipment and testing in one facility, Elitra hopes to change how executives approach their health and wellness.
Another big change in workplace healthcare: data integration
Other changes in health are coming or are already in place, and that includes data integration.
Anything from software platforms to wearables can customize important information for employees seeking to change their lifestyles and obtain results. And employees want these this technology: A UnitedHealthcare infographic revealed that 62 percent of employees who didn't have an activity tracker were interested in using one as part of a work wellness program.
What you as a leader can do
One thing you can do is ensure your employees take the vacation time they are allotted. Americans, on average, have a total of 10 paid vacation days a year, which is well below that of our European counterparts, who get between 20 and 30 paid vacation days annually.
In 2016, the amount of time off earned by U.S. employees increased nearly a full day, but despite that increase, a smaller percentage of employees (54 percent) ended the year with more unused vacation time than the year before (55 percent). Forfeiting vacation days means that workers gave up $66.4 billion in benefits throughout 2016, costing the U.S. economy $236 billion.
It's important for corporate America (and small business owners alike) to immerse themselves in employee wellness. The trend encourages workers to stay healthy, happy and productive even as their employers reap savings from their efforts.
From a financial perspective, you don’t absolutely need corporate resources to ensure your employees are well taken care of. But whatever you offer or don't offer, in the end, nurturing a culture of wellness at your company can only ensure you have a group of people giving you their best all the time.