Reframing the workplace wellness debate as part of employer branding

The data hasn’t been very conclusive on whether wellness programs really improve health and save money on absenteeism—but employees value well-being offerings.

By Ted Kitterman      @tedkitkat      

This might be the tipping point for one model of justifying workplace wellness programs. In recent data released as part of a three-year study into the health benefits of workplace wellness offerings, the results have been disappointing.

The researchers, Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and Zirui Song, an assistant professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, wrote about their findings in The Washington Post:

“After nearly three years, we didn’t see any substantial effects on employment outcomes (such as fewer sick days), health-care spending or objective health measures. We did find some improvements in self-reported health behaviors. For example, the wellness program increased the share of employees who reported actively managing their weight by about 8.7 percentage points and the share of those who said they got regular exercise by about 11 percentage points. But we saw no effects on blood pressure, diabetes or obesity.”

It’s a sobering finding for workplace wellness leaders and communicators who are tasked with implementing the offerings and demonstrating their efficacy. The argument that such programming improves workers’ lives, thereby decreasing health care costs and limiting absenteeism for illness—just isn’t supported by the data.

And that might be part of why programs like health care plans with exercise trackers and fitness challenges have fallen out of favor with some industry pros.

A big part of a study from Harvard looking at employees at BJ’s Wholesale and the impact of wellness offerings is how these programs rarely succeed in getting unhealthy employees to change their habits. Workers who partake of gym membership benefits are the ones likely to have found their way to the gym on their own.

The Washington Post continues:

“It’s easy to be misled by a casual examination of the health and employment outcomes of people who participate in wellness programs compared with those who don’t. For example, when an employer offers a free gym membership, people who take up the offer unsurprisingly tend to be people who like to go to the gym. People who use this employment benefit might well be healthier than those who don’t, but that probably would have been the case regardless of the wellness program.”  

And so the science shows that offering workers that free yoga class isn’t really moving the needle on the overall health of the workforce. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a case for wellness programming. It just has to be justified by different means.

Employee experience and the talent war

Workplace wellness is popular with employees, the Harvard study reports, and if anything keeps the multi-billion dollar industry humming along, it will be employers looking to keep workers satisfied.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers are walking off the job in record numbers. A hot labor market has made desperate employers get creative in their searches for employees. Employers like Amazon and Disney World are offering $1,000 bonuses to get new workers to sign up and Amazon has made a heavy push to rebrand itself as the “best employer in the world.”

But workers are showing reluctance to return to the world of work as it was before the COVID-19 crisis. As NPR reported:

“Some people may have just waited out the pandemic to leave a job that wasn’t a good fit. Some people are quitting because they can make more money elsewhere. Professor Tsedal Neeley of Harvard Business School is focused on yet another factor. Thanks to the pandemic, she says, workers now feel empowered to speak up about when, how and where they want to work.”

With workers showing more skepticism about potential employment—and the increased opportunities for remote work increasing competition for top talent—employee experience is in the spotlight. How do you care for your employees? How are you protecting the boundary between work and home life? How are you helping working parents and caregivers find sustainable workflows and flexibility?

It’s something that is being worked out on the fly by many organizations, and wellness pros shouldn’t be afraid to place themselves squarely in the middle of the discussion. Mental health offerings, DE&I programs, and a company culture that values a healthy lifestyle as much as it does the extra profits could be the difference in keeping top workers and losing the talent war.

So, when looking to find solid footing for your argument to keep your workplace wellness program, make sure to focus on what employees say they like.

The researchers conclude in The Washington Post:

“Does this mean that wellness programs are a waste of money? It depends on what you want to get out of them. Employees seemed to value the benefit, had heightened awareness of the importance of healthy behaviors and were trying to implement them. If employers are seeking to add benefits that workers value (or attract workers who value those benefits), the programs may be worth it. But if the goal is to save money by reducing health-care costs and absenteeism, or to improve chronic physical health conditions, the evidence so far is underwhelming.”

Organizations aren’t ready for engagement pivot

The other reason for workplace wellness pros to place themselves on the frontlines when it comes to employee engagement is that it’s a big issue for many organizations and an opportunity to show real value.

The increase in remote work has drastically changed how many organizations engage with their employees. Many companies report increased planned investments in the employee experience in the coming years.

In a Willis Towers Watson report:

“The 2021 Employee Experience Survey found almost nine in 10 APAC employers (88%) said enhancing the employee experience will be an important priority at their organization over the next three years, compared with just 52% indicating it as important prior to the pandemic—and with good reason. Most respondents believe a positive employee experience is a key driver of engagement (79%), employee wellbeing (79%), productivity (79%), and the ability to attract and retain talent (79%).”

The purse might be open when it comes to employee engagement, and wellness pros who can tie their work to the employee experience and worker satisfaction are more likely to see a bounce in their budget in the months ahead.