What inspires a company to implement a workplace wellness program? Is it genuine concern for employees’ health, a productivity improvement initiative, or a way to balance the health care budget?
For Well-Spring, a Greensboro retirement community, it was largely about encouraging employees to get and stay well. “In a workplace that centers around serving others, it can be difficult to take care of yourself,” says Garrett Saake, director of Resident Relations and Programs. “Along with a strong benefits package, all employees can now participate in various wellness programs, ranging from weight loss challenges to our safety awareness week.”
“From a business perspective, there is no question that healthier and happier employees will be more productive,” he continues. “From a human standpoint, it is the right thing to do. We often spend more time at work than we do anywhere else, so that environment should promote opportunities to be more physically and mentally healthy.”
Well-Spring collaborates with the Bryan School, specifically with Dr. Jeremy Bray, to analyze data regarding its wellness benefits, long an area of focus at UNCG.
In the Department of Public Health Education at the School of Health and Human Sciences, Dr. Daniel Bibeau helped develop one of the first 11 local wellness councils in the country and served as its first executive director. This council eventually became part of the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA), and Bibeau soon had several UNCG graduate students working on WELCOA-funded worksite health promotion research.
Today, Bibeau; Bray, head of the Department of Economics at the Bryan School; and Dr. Michael Perko, graduate program director in the Department of Public Health, are helping WELCOA analyze data. They are reviewing corporate responses to the Well-Workplace Checklist, which went online in 2008 and focused on WELCOA’s seven benchmarks for quality.
Nilay Unsal, one of Dr. Bray’s doctoral students, has encountered preliminary findings that suggest new adopters of wellness programs are more likely to implement health screenings to control health care costs. Companies with four-plus years of wellness experience are adopting smoking cessation programs with the hope of an ROI and nutrition programs to help control health care costs. Companies with 10-plus years of experience are more likely to implement physical activity programs with an eye on ROI.
WHAT MOTIVATES WORKPLACE WELLNESS?
Bray has found that only the rare employer adopts an employee wellness program purely for a potential return on investment (ROI).
“Our doctoral students are trying to find out why companies adopt them,” he says. “There’s a huge debate as to whether wellness programs lead to savings. Our hypothesis is that a specific disease-management program, like for diabetes, may save health care costs by directly tackling an issue, while a general wellness program, with discounts on gym memberships and the like, would take years to manifest cost savings.”
The team recently received a UNCG Giant Steps Research Development Grant, which provides seed funding for projects that enhance UNCG’s external visibility, encourage research, and have the potential to leverage preliminary results to obtain significant future funding.
“We want to understand and align public policy, company, and employee motivations for wellness,” says Bray. “Our experience with WELCOA – the nation’s largest wellness member organization – gives our university the opportunity to make a big splash.”
The team hopes to help UNCG further develop its own wellness program, Healthy UNCG, and become a leader in innovating best practices. That means increasing opportunities for wellness education, practice, and research and creating campus space for piloting wellness initiatives.
In June the team hosted an on-campus research roundtable to determine how local businesses use workplace wellness research and where they’re struggling. They gained even broader insights at another roundtable at the WELCOA National Summit in San Diego in August. They’re discussing the possibility of a “mini-research conference” on the topic at WELCOA’s 2019 Summit.
BEYOND THE ROI
Even if workplace wellness programs don’t directly affect health care costs, they can still be impactful. “Wellness programs may affect both absenteeism and presenteeism, when employees show up but aren’t as productive as they should be,” explains Bray.
The team says wellness programs can also serve as recruitment and retention tools for companies. “Today’s efforts are all about value on investment (VOI), helping people become aware of and work to improve their health status,” says Perko.
Doctoral student GracieLee Weaver’s research focuses on the quality of worksite wellness initiatives. “We have the potential to impact a large population of people through system-wide changes,” says Weaver. “We hope to help companies improve worksite wellness initiatives by tailoring supports based on expected performance and likely areas for improvement.”