Stretch every hour, take a walk on your lunch break, and grab an apple from the breakroom – these mantras are becoming more common in the workplace. Workplace health has become a top priority in the era of COVID-19. In addition to newly implemented sanitation procedures and social distancing measures, wellness programs can play a big role in employee health. And according to recent data, employer-sponsored wellness programs are on the rise.
Historically, wellness programs offered incentives for employees to stay active, quit smoking, or adopt healthy eating habits. For example, in 1979, Johnson & Johnson passed out 36,000 pedometers as part of a campaign to help workers lose weight and ditch tobacco products. Modern wellness programs can include anything from discounted gym memberships to on-site massages to designated spaces for naps and meditation during the workday.
According to a 2017 study conducted by the CDC and UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Global Public Health, nearly half of U.S. workplaces offer some sort of wellness program. The bigger the company, the more likely they are to incorporate health-oriented perks: 92% of companies with more than 500 employees offer a health program compared to 39% of businesses with 10-24 workers.
“More than 156 million full-time workers in the U.S. spend most of their daily waking hours in the workplace, providing employers with an important opportunity to foster a healthy and safe work environment,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D. “It is encouraging to see a growing number of worksites developing and promoting a culture of health for employees.”
More than just a nice perk for workers, wellness programs can also benefit a company’s bottom line by reducing healthcare costs. “While we’re not privy to a company’s actual health insurance costs, we do track the metrics that they ask us to track,” explains Dan DeFigio, director at Basics and Beyond Fitness and Nutrition. “It’s typical for our employee wellness programs to show 20 percent decrease in sick days, 10 percent decrease in company-wide BMI average, and a two-thirds reduction in workplace injuries and workers comp claims.”
But today’s wellness programs are about more than just the physical health of employees. Most programs take a holistic view of health and attempt to address overall wellbeing, giving mental health as much weight as physical health.
A 2015 study found that mental health problems caused “significant productivity loss,” with some of the top stressors being lack of sleep, financial concerns, and giving unpaid care to family members. Productivity loss tends to show up in one of two ways: absenteeism and presenteeism. Many employees take “mental health days” to rest and regroup when the demands of work and home life reach a fever pitch. On the other hand, presenteeism happens when an employee shows up at work but isn’t fully engaged.
With many employees working from home these days, presenteeism is perhaps the bigger concern for businesses. When we are unengaged or bored at work, our minds wander and often end up scanning the immediate environment for problems. We’re hard-wired to do this because, at one time, continuously looking out for danger helped us survive. But in our modern world, scanning for danger often leads to anxiety, which is detrimental to our concentration and can keep us from connecting our work performance to larger life or career goals.
Some companies have instituted new policies to address the newfound concerns of managing an all-remote workforce. For example, Scality, a file storage company, encourages workers to pursue creative and intellectual endeavors outside of work—and gives them extra time and money to do so. While this approach is a bit different from more traditional offerings like a discounted gym membership, the end goal is the same: to help employees live a healthier and more fulfilling life. And when employees are happier, it benefits not just businesses but society-at-large. As the 2015 study concludes: “Improving health and wellbeing can therefore have real societal, economic and personal benefits above and beyond their value to business alone.”
So go ahead, take that walk at lunchtime, a clear head is a benefit to you and your employer.