Moving the Needle on Corporate Wellness

Good health is about so much more than breaking bad habits or not being sick—it should be about helping people be their best selves in all aspects of their lives, both in and out of work.

Do corporate wellness programs work?

This was the question posed by a host of business stories last year when the results of The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study were released. Designed by researchers based at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the study examined participants in a workplace wellness program against a control group and found that participation didn’t comparatively boost health outcomes or lower costs. At the same time, investment in wellness is booming. In January 2018, Bloomberg reported that, according to an IBIS World analysis, the corporate wellness industry has “ballooned from a $1 billion one in 2011 to $6.8 billion five years later.” The Bloomberg story also says that the Society of Human Resource Management’s yearly benefits survey found that almost a quarter of employers boosted their wellness offerings over the previous year.

It looks like there might be a pretty big gulf between what corporations are hoping for when they invest in wellness programs and actual results. One issue might be our definition of “wellness.” Many programs focus on disease management through things such as health screenings and weight loss and smoking cessation programs. But wellness is so much more than the absence of disease. What if more workplace wellness programs inspired people to live their best lives, and as a result, people started bringing their best selves to work? By focusing on the three key pillars of wellness—body, mind, and environment—from a more holistic perspective, employers stand a greater chance of cultivating a workplace culture that’s healthier, happier, and more engaged. Here’s how: 

  1. Make healthier foods and beverages a benefit.

According to a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, poor nutrition has a greater impact on physical health than smoking or a lack of physical activity. Yet when it comes to wellness, food and beverage services represent an untapped opportunity at many corporations—a 2018 CDC study of employees across the U.S. concluded that the foods people typically eat at work contain high amounts of sodium and refined grains, and very little whole grains and fruit. What’s going on? Unfortunately, people will reach for whatever is at hand when they are hungry and busy, and at far too many offices, their choices are limited to sodas from the vending machine, donuts and treats in the conference room, and other versions of ultra-processed snacks. Corporations that want to help their employees eat healthier need to make healthier options readily available. Consider this a “build it, and they will come” approach: By offering healthy food and beverage services (either free or subsidized) as a company perk or benefit, employers don’t have to cajole people into taking better care of themselves—the healthy choice ends up being the easy choice. In fact, many office workers are not just open to trying, buteagerfor better food and beverage options. According to Deloitte’s 2018 survey on Global Human Capital Trends, 63 percent of employees surveyed cited healthy snacks as something they value highly. 

  1. Elevate the importance of mental health.

The mind-body connection is a powerful one, and wellness is best served when both the physical and mental health of employees is considered a priority. When people work too many hours and never have the opportunity to rest, unplug, and refill the creative well, their productivity and engagement will suffer. Providing benefits such as paid time off, flex time, and work-from-home options is one way employers can support work-life balance. In fact, a Society for Human Resource Management study cited in this Forbes column found that “employees who take most or all of their vacation time are almost universally more productive, higher-performing, and more satisfied than their vacation-skipping counterparts.” Another way to boost mindfulness in the workplace is through an evidence-based meditation practice such as Transcendental Meditation. The benefits associated with meditation are numerous and include everything from increasing immune function and positive thinking to boosting focus, attention, memory, and creativity. Mediation is also a great way to reduce anxiety and stress. Teaching meditation techniques and providing time and space for employees to practice are low-cost yet impactful ways to strengthen the mind-body connection and boost wellness. 

  1. Create a workplace environment that engages and inspires.

Where people work can be just as critical to wellness as how they work. Air quality, lighting, ergonomics, and office design all play important roles in promoting good health and also in engaging and inspiring people throughout the workday. For example, an NBC News report about natural light in the workplace cited a study done at Cornell University that showed “workers seated by a window that optimized natural light reported an 84 percent drop in symptoms of eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision.” Natural light also was shown to boost productivity and decrease drowsiness. Other considerations to take into account when choosing, designing, or upgrading office space include ventilation, the availability of inviting spaces for both quiet focus and socializing and collaboration, and furniture and equipment (such as standing desks) that help counteract the effects of too much sitting. Even something as simple as including more indoor plants at the office can boost people’s moods and improve productivity.   

By focusing too myopically on specifics such as weight loss and disease management, many corporate wellness programs are missing opportunities to address employee health and wellbeing in ways that go beyond “fixing things that are wrong.” Good health is about so much more than breaking bad habits or not being sick—it should be about helping people be their best selves in all aspects of their lives, both in and out of work. Organizations that approach wellness from a balanced and holistic perspective that integrates body, mind, and environment will reap rewards in the form of a workplace culture that’s not only healthy, but also happier, more inspiring, and engaging. 

Michael Heinrich is founder and CEO of Oh My Green, a concierge-style provider of healthy food and wellness services for corporations of all sizes. Following several demanding jobs where he spent afternoons sluggish and tired after sugar-crashing on M&Ms and soda, he was inspired to create a business focused on making workplace food offerings more nutritious, healthy and delicious.

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