Back to the Future: How the Evolution of Corporate Wellness Influences Its Destiny

Back in the late 1870s, when Thomas Edison was perfecting the lightbulb, a quiet revolution stirred in the workplace. The movement to take care of employees simmered for more than a century before expanding into the corporate wellness we see today.

How does that history influence the programs of today? And what does it mean for the future? Let's start by looking at the early trendsetters in corporate wellness.

Corporate wellness at its infancy
The companies at the forefront of this trend didn't intend to start a revolution. They just wanted to take care of their employees a bit better to increase workplace productivity.

The Pullman Company, maker of sleeping cars for railroads, introduced an athletic program for its workers in 1879. A few years later, National Cash Register upped the ante. It instituted twice-daily exercise breaks, built an employee gym and even created a 325-acre recreation park for workers.

To be clear, these were audacious programs for their time, even if they were focused on increasing the bottom line. Companies weren't rushing to copy them as most pre-World War II jobs already required physical fitness. As a result, physicians of the time advised companies offer more rest breaks to workers in industrial settings -- a nod to both the physical and mental well-being of employees (and labor demands for a tolerable work life).

Today's workplace: We have a lot more regulations and restrictions on work hours, but employees still need more breaks to improve their well-being. A 2015 survey of employees published by Quantum Workplace and my company, Limeade, found that 71.1 percent of employees want their employers to provide stress relief breaks, including naps and massages -- but just 28.4 percent of employers do so.

An increasingly white-collar workforce
Progress continued slowly -- but there were other bright spots before World War II.

In 1926, Ford introduced a 40-hour work week, after learning employees were more productive with constraints on the amount of time they could work. Hershey Foods built an elaborate employee recreation facility -- swimming pool included. Johnson & Johnson even sponsored a women's basketball team.

With more large companies demonstrating the value of taking care of their employees, progress gained momentum. The U.S. workplace looked more like the familiar, post-industrial one we see today. And companies started to understand the role behavior played in their employees' health.

Companies like Texas Instruments, Rockwell and Xerox all opened employee fitness centers in the '50s and '60s. In 1971, the U.S. Department of Labor established the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to prevent workplace accidents and injuries.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, the dangers of cigarette smoking on health became clear to employers. Boeing became the first large company to ban smoking in the workplace in 1987, and other employers slowly followed over the coming decades. The anti-smoking movement highlighted that harmful health behaviors, even if they didn't always occur at work, could have an impact on the health, productivity and happiness of employees.

Today's workplace: Outside factors still have a huge impact on productivity and job satisfaction among employees. A 2015 study published by Rand found that lack of sleep, financial concerns and taking care of family members all put a dent in productivity. We've come a long way in providing healthy work environments, but employers can still do more to develop supportive workplaces and reduce the impact of health habits outside the office.

Expense-focused versus well-being-focused wellness
In the early 2000s, groundbreaking research from Dee Edington at the University of Michigan shifted the approach to wellness. He found that people don't have consistent health behaviors or outcomes. Many people move freely between low and high risk over their lifetime, and even within a given year.

Programs that focused on improving the behaviors of the least healthy employees seemed like going after the low-hanging fruit to some. To others, it felt like the "singling out" of unhealthy employees.

This revelation led to a split in corporate wellness philosophies.

Many wellness solutions at the time focused primarily on mitigating rising premium costs by targeting efforts at the most expensive employees to insure. This missed the point: A whole subset of employees wasn't being encouraged to take care of themselves.

A new set of solutions launched in the mid-2000s took a different approach. They considered Edington's and research from Daniel Pink, BJ Fogg, Dr. Laura Hamill and others about motivation and behavior. Companies like mine, Limeade, and others like Virgin Pulse, RedBrick and more created new programs that included all employees and focused on factors that affect an employee's total well-being -- stress, sleep, job satisfaction, financial health and more.

Another revelation of the era was the importance of organizational support and culture. Basically, companies that put a priority on employee well-being saw better engagement, profits and stock price growth. Providing healthy snacks in the workplace, forming employee activity groups and ensuring their executive leadership were full participants helped them create lasting change across the workforces of the best and most profitable companies.

Today's workplace: Organizations that invest in employee well-being still see valuable results. A study published in the January issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that companies with high well-being scores outperformed the 500 largest U.S. companies listed on the S&P 500 index by 235 percent over a six-year period. These companies could be performing better because their employees are healthy and feel valued. After all, the Quantum Workplace and Limeade study found that respondents were 38 percent more engaged and 18 percent more likely to go the extra mile when they felt their employers cared about their well-being.

History meets the future
Nearly 150 years have passed since the infancy of corporate wellness. Yet we're still trying to answer the same question: How do we help employees bring their full potential to work?

But today, we know so much more about employees and their well-being than we did even 20 years ago. So how do we take that knowledge and apply it to the workplace? What's the next step?

Employers can learn from the past to create better corporate wellness programs that address the whole person. There's plenty of evidence showing we can't concentrate on one element of health and well-being and hope for success. Instead, we need to focus on all areas of the whole employee -- from their physical health to emotional, financial and work well-being.

Forget risk-based solutions and listen to the needs of employees. Do they want interventions to relieve stress? Improve sleep? Better manage their finances? Eat healthier?

Whatever it is, develop programs and initiatives that meet those unique needs. Then, create an environment that supports them. Employees need your leadership team's full support to improve their health and come to work each day, ready to give it all they've got.

Is your wellness program stuck in the past? How can it better meet employee needs? Share in the comments below!

Henry Albrecht is the founder and CEO of Limeade, the corporate wellness technology company that measurably improves employee health, well-being and performance. Connect with Henry and the Limeade team on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.