Belief in a corporate wellness narrative is more important than action

Millais_Boyhood_of_RaleighThe complexities of wellness at work are laid bare in a new report from the US based pressure group Global Wellness Institute. The most eye-catching conclusion from The Future of Wellness at Work study is that it’s not actual wellness programmes that do most to boost worker health and productivity, but whether employees identify that company as ‘caring’. The report claims that ‘unwellness’ now costs the US around $2.2 trillion each year, equivalent to 12 percent of GDP.  The report is published alongside a white paper which lays out the findings from a survey of American employees. Unlocking the Power of Company Caring gauges how employees feel about their work culture and wellness programmes. The main finding of the two reports is that to understand what has the most powerful impact on employee wellness ‘you must look well beyond the wellness programme’ itself. Instead, the pivotal factor is whether an employee identifies their company as caring about their health and wellness.

The research found that when employees did believe their employers cared, regardless of what action was taken their overall health, stress levels and job engagement improved significantly.

“The findings surprised us: we saw significant, diverse and positive implications when a company is perceived to “care” about an employee’s personal wellness, and extremely negative outcomes when it was perceived as a “non-caring” company,” said Global Wellness Institute Chairman & CEO Susie Ellis. “And we found that caring companies tackle not just ‘tangibles’ like healthy food and workspaces, they address emotional, relational, organizational, intellectual and financial ‘wellness’ at work whether it’s giving workers more work flexibility or encouraging socializing and friendships.”

Ellis noted that being a company that “cares” is easier than management may think. And while intangible “work culture” components may seem elusive, the research shows that they are the true drivers of health and productivity – according to employees. Both studies reach the same conclusion: the current, compartmentalised “programmatic” approaches to workplace wellness will disappear in the future, and companies will reorient their wellness strategies around culture-wide “caring,” paying close attention to what that means for their particular workforce.

Other key findings of the report include:

Wellness 1The average global worker is unwell

Most of the world’s 3.4 billion workers are unwell. They live with serious economic insecurity: 74 percent make less than $13/day; 45 percent are in low-skill/manual jobs; 77 percent are in part-time or unstable jobs. They’re aging at an historic rate: 18 percent of the workforce will be over 55 by 2030. They’re unhealthy: 52 percent are overweight/obese, and 76 percent report they’re struggling with their wellbeing.

Wellness 2Wellness programmes are available to only one in ten workers worldwide

Only 9 percent of the global workforce has access to some form of wellness program at work. The breakdown in penetration: North America 52 percent of employees, Europe 23 percent, Middle East/North Africa 7 percent, Latin America/Caribbean 5 percent, Asia 5 percent and Sub-Saharan Africa 1 percent. The U.S., where companies pay for employee healthcare, is by far the largest market and innovator, but as chronic disease skyrockets globally, and healthcare costs (paid via taxes) spike in markets like Europe, the GWI predicts significant growth in global workplace wellness spending in the next decade.

Wellness 3The cost of unwellness is unsustainable

Worldwide, the cost of unwell workers represents 10-15 percent of global economic output. The GWI estimates that in the U.S., when you tally the cost of employees’ chronic disease ($1.1 tril.), work-related injuries/illnesses ($250 bil.), work-related stress ($300 bil.) and the cost of work disengagement ($550 bil.) that an unhealthy workforce costs the nation $2.2 trillion a year, or a staggering 12 percent of GDP.

There is a shift from an information to ‘wisdom’ economy

Wellness 4The GWI report forecasts the many ways that work will change in the future. Hierarchical management structures will be replaced by models giving employees greater autonomy and accountability. Long-term, stable jobs (at set locations/hours) will give way to an increasingly virtual and “free agent” workforce. As older workers retire later, the workforce will be intensely multigenerational: by 2020 teens and employees over 70 will work side-by-side. The most profound shift: the Information Age will be succeeded by a “Wisdom” or “Human” Age: as robots and Artificial Intelligence coopt many work tasks, qualities not replicable by machines (collaboration, creativity, empathy, constant learning, etc.) will be in high demand. And these qualities demand the highest level of mental and physical wellness.

There is a problem with people engaging with wellness programmes

Fifty-four percent of full-time American workers have a workplace wellness program, but only 40 percent of employees with programs say they actually improve their health/wellness; nearly one-third don’t use them; and 10 percent don’t even know if one is available. And the impact of programs is marginal across age groups: for Gen X and Boomer workers, 58 percent of those with a program rate their health/wellness high, vs. 42 percent without one. Millennials report that the presence of a workplace wellness program makes zero difference: 50 percent rate their health/wellness high with and without a program.

Only 25 percent of employees believe that their company offers a wellness program because they care about workers’ health and wellbeing. Fifty-eight percent believe their program exists only to cut company health costs, while another 17 percent believe it’s in place to make employees work harder/be more productive. So, 3 in 4 employees are now cynical, perceiving wellness programs as companies “caring” more about their bottom-line than employee health.

Being seen to care is everything

The survey data clearly indicates that to understand what has the most profound impact on employee wellness, you need to look beyond the existence of wellness programs. The critical finding: if an employee identified their company as “caring about their health/wellness”* (and a disturbingly low 37 percent did), that employee’s overall health, stress and job engagement/satisfaction improved significantly. For example:

  • Fifty-seven percent of employees at “caring” companies rate their health/wellness high, vs. only 39 percent at “non-caring” companies. Only 8 percent at caring companies report poor personal health, vs. 21 percent at non-caring companies.
  • Only 17 percent of employees at caring companies report “very high” stress vs. 41 percent at non-caring ones.
    Employees at caring companies are dramatically more engaged: more than twice as likely to report their work satisfying (52 percent vs. 25 percent), exciting (33 percent vs.16 percent), and interesting (66 percent vs. 30 percent) – and that “they’re proud to be associated with the company” (68 percent vs. 19 percent).

The white paper identifies dozens of tangible offerings (whether healthy workspace design or formal wellness programs) that comprise a “caring” vs. “non-caring” company – according to employees. Among “tangibles,” compensation, benefits and recognition impact worker wellness most. Those that work for non-caring companies are 11 times more likely to report that their pay, benefits and recognition have a negative impact on their wellness. And caring companies are more likely to offer financial counseling (39 percent) than the uncaring (17 percent), as well as non-monetary gifts/incentives (64 percent vs. 30 percent).

Caring companies are also more likely to provide employees with a wellness program than the non-caring (67 percent vs. 41 percent) – and encourage/offer a host of healthy options, like regular exercise (58 percent vs. 20 percent), healthy eating (57 percent vs. 21 percent), meditation (20 percent vs. 7 percent), stress reduction (35 percent vs. 13 percent), mental health services (56 percent vs. 34 percent), and wellness coaching (38 percent vs. 24 percent.)

Eighty-three percent of employees at caring companies (vs. 48 percent at uncaring) report they have comfortable workspaces. And workers at caring companies are significantly less likely to report that lack of break time/space (15 percent vs. 48 percent for uncaring) – fresh air (17 percent vs. 45 percent) – or private space (19 percent vs. 38 percent) are detractors from their health and productivity. Caring companies are also significantly more likely to offer healthy workspace elements: like providing nap/meditation spaces (33 percent vs. 13 percent), standing treadmill desks (23 percent vs. 11 percent), or places for moms to breastfeed (38 percent vs. 18 percent).
The survey showed that when it comes to what employees believe most constitutes “company caring” that the tangible aspects (whether pay or the physical workspace) are actually less important than emotional, intellectual and work relationship “intangibles” – whether it’s giving people work flexibility to ensuring an open/honest company culture

A few gaps in policy/work culture “intangibles” – caring vs. non-caring companies

Company cultures that build positive relationships between employees and managers and coworkers rank high in “caring” and significantly impact employee health: employee/manager/coworker interactions are six times more likely to have a negative impact on wellness for employees at an uncaring company. “Executives leading by example” is a crucial component of a caring company: employees at uncaring companies reported that the top thing that could be improved at their work was “leaders leading by example” (85 percent, vs. 33 percent agreeing at caring companies).

Different generations have different attitudes

The many tangible and intangible factors that most influence whether a company is perceived as “caring” or “non-caring” – along with what workplace factors drive the greatest personal health/wellness – were identified for Gen X/Baby Boomer and Millennial workers. Significant differences emerged – suggesting that what it means to be a healthy, caring company isn’t one-size-fits-all.
For Gen X / Baby Boomers: 1) Can choose my own work path/projects, 2) Onsite or subsidized childcare, 3) Onsite recreation, 4) Nutritional counseling, 5) Opportunity to grow

For Millennials: 1) My company cares about my personal wellness, 2) Feel my work has positive impact on people’s lives, 3) Health insurance, 4) My boss/manager cares about my personal wellness, 5) My employer is supportive

Generally, workplace “intangibles” and emotional factors have the largest impact on employee wellness, especially for Millennials, who want to know, above all, that their company, managers and co-workers all care about their personal wellbeing. For this rising generation of workers, “caring” is the very heart of workplace wellness.

Main image: Millais’ Boyhead of Raleigh

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