The culture surrounding health in the workplace has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades. While employee wellness programs were basically unheard of up into the mid-1970s, now 70% of businesses in the U.S. offer at least a basic staff health program, and it looks like things are only improving as businesses embrace perks like nap pods, rock climbing walls, paid sabbaticals, and in-house medical care.
But is all this worth it? Does participating in a corporate wellness program actually benefit employees?
The research says yes! Studies on wellness programs and their effects show that they're not just a corporate nice-to-have, they really do benefit the people who take part in them. Employees who participate in these types of programs tend to be:
• Healthier. In purely practical terms, workplace wellness programs usually do what they're intended to do: they keep employees well. Access to on-site health care or regularly scheduled health fairs, education about health and well-being, and support with health care costs all make it easier for employees to stay healthy. And incentives like bonuses for following a good diet or access to gyms make it worth people's while to adopt healthier habits.
Research shows that employees who take part in wellness programs are less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise.1 What's more, employees who have more health risks but participate in a program are still less likely to require medical attention or call out from work than those who don't participate.2
• Happier. An employee who knows that their company has their back tends to be much happier about life in general, and their job specifically. And it makes sense: knowing that they won't be left dealing with medical problems on their own, getting support in managing stress and work-life balance, and having the camaraderie of a group when it comes to staying healthy all make people feel better about being at work.
The research supports this common-sense conclusion, too: studies show that employees in corporate wellness programs are happier as a result. In fact, one broad study across multiple companies found that 89% of employees who work in a company that focuses on staying healthy said they were happier for it.3 An emphasis on health in the workplace also connects closely to engagement, with employees in wellness programs typically having much higher morale and a tendency to stay with their companies longer.
• Better at their jobs. It's no surprise people who are happier, healthier, and more engaged in their work tend to work better––but what's interesting is just how much better. Studies on presenteeism (where people show up for work but don't really do much of anything) show that people are much less likely to “phone it in” when they're in a wellness program, and they're also much more productive. And this isn't just because they're staying well longer and calling in to work less often.
While absenteeism and presenteeism play a role in productivity, happiness appears to be at least as important, with studies showing that happy employees are up to 20% more productive than ones who feel neutral.4
Benefits for Businesses
Employees aren't the only ones who benefit from wellness programs: they're also great for businesses’ bottom lines. Besides the increases in productivity and decreases in absenteeism and insurance claims (because healthy employees don't need as much medical care), businesses that have wellness programs also have much less turnover. With the average turnover rate for businesses in the U.S. being about 15-20% a year, and the average cost of replacing an employee starting at $3,000, it's clear how recruitment can add up fast, making the increase in retention these programs can provide incredibly valuable.5,6
Combine all those savings and stack them up against the costs of implementing such a program, and most studies show that businesses make a return of at least $1.50 (and often closer to $3.00) on every dollar spent on health-related programs.7
The Pillars of Good Wellness Programs
While the exact elements of corporate wellness initiatives vary considerably, researchers are starting to be able to pick up on what makes them take off. Some of the most important components include:
1. Health Education
Telling people to do something for their health is one thing; but telling them why they'll benefit from doing it is much more effective. The best wellness programs have a strong focus on education, especially when it comes to:
• Exercise: Many people don't receive any formal exercise training after they leave school, which can make it hard to find a type of workout routine that works for them. Employee wellness programs can help people figure out what type of exercise suits them and their schedule so they can actually enjoy being active and stick with it.
• Sleep: 50% of American workers are routinely sleep deprived, which is terrible for their health. (Not to mention bad for business: U.S. businesses lose an estimated $63.2 billion a year as a result of sleep-related issues.)8 A workplace wellness program is the perfect place to help employees develop good sleep hygiene habits.
• Diet and weight management: Weight management is one of the top two things American workers struggle with (the other being stress), so education about diet, nutrition, and weight can have a huge impact. It's even more effective when connected to modeling; programs that have both education and an in-house nutritionist or cafeteria that serves healthy food have great results.
• Mental health and stress management: Most people deal with stress, low moods, or anxious thoughts at some point in their adult life, and if they don't get the support they need to manage them, the effects can be serious both in terms of their work and in terms of life in general. But education can help people take steps to support their mental health and get the help they need if things do start to become more challenging.
• Gut health: The health of the gut microbiome is foundational for health as a whole––when it's in balance, it supports the rest of the body in everything from memory and sleep to immunity and skin health. Educating employees about the importance of their gut bacteria (and how to nourish them with probiotics and prebiotics) can help them avoid the all-too-common things that deplete their friendly flora, like harsh cleansers, exposure to antibiotics in food or medication, and a diet that's high in sugar and processed food. Plus, since the gut microbiome affects essentially every other part of the body, supporting it is one of the best ways to enhance the effects of other healthy habits, like exercise and healthy eating.
2. Wellness Perks
The better the perks, the more likely employees are to actually participate in the program. Traditional things like money towards insurance deductibles, on-site massages, and free gym memberships tend to be really popular, as are newer perks like scavenger hunts, fitness-tracking wearables, cooking lessons, and company dance parties. The main goal is to find something that fits in well with the company culture. Sometimes simpler programs are more effective; it all depends on what the employees in that particular company need.
3. Whole-Person Health Care
The best employee wellness programs address employees as whole people, which means that they include elements that address physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Having a spiritual component––whether that's education about a gratitude practice, meditation, or empowered thinking––can help employees manage stress, provide auxiliary support for good mental health, and even help people feel more connected in their relationships. And as an added bonus, addressing this facet of health can also help keep the microbiome in balance (less stress means happier microbes) so it can support all the other efforts employees are making to take care of their health.
The research says it all: workplace wellness programs are a clear win-win, with significant benefits to both staff and businesses. Healthier staff mean a healthier bottom line, making this one business trend that everyone can find a reason to get on board with.
1. Mattke, S., Liu, H., Caloyeras, J., Huang, C.Y., Van Busum, K. R. . . . Shier, V. (2013). Workplace Wellness Programs Study. Rand Health Quarterly, 3(2).
2. Berry, L.L., Mirabito, A.M., Baun, W.B. (2010). What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs? Harvard Business Review.
3. The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2016). The Wellness Effect: The Impact of Workplace Programmes. The Economist Intelligence Unit Report.
4. Sgroi, D. (2015). Happiness and Productivity: Understanding the Happy-Productive Worker. Global Perspectives Series 4.
5. Compdata Surveys. (2016). 2016 Turnover Rate by State Report. Dolan Technologies Corporation Report.
6. Boushey, H., Glynn, S.J. (2012). There Are Significant Business Costs to Replacing Employees. Center for American Progress.
7. Baicker, K., Cutler, D., Song, Z. (2010). Workplace Wellness Programs Can Generate Savings. Health Affairs, 29(2). doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2009.0626
8. Hafner, M., Stepanek, M., Taylor, J., Troxel, W.M., van Stolk, C. (2016). Why Sleep Matters — the Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep: A Cross-Country Comparative Analysis. The RAND Corporation, Santa Monica.
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.