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Healthier Employees and Cost Savings: Expanding our Definition of Wellness at Work

If we really want to make a difference in working families' lives, our definition of wellness needs to expand.
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In her recent piece celebrating National Work & Family month, Donna Klein of Corporate Voices notes that "progressive personnel policies and a work culture supportive of occasional flexibility" offers companies "enhanced recruitment, retention, engagement, cost control, productivity and financial performance."

Here's another reason to support an effective and flexible work culture for all employees: It could actually help your employees stay healthy.

Employers understand that investing in employee wellness is smart business, but as Cali Yost says, most think "wellness program" equals an employer-subsidized gym membership. A recent SHRM survey shows that even though 60% of responding HR professionals report that the recession has had an impact on their employers' benefits offerings, many employers plan to increase benefits in health and wellness. To wit, 10% of respondents plan to implement rewards or bonuses for achieving or completing certain health and wellness goals/programs, and 8% of respondents plan to add health/lifestyle coaching in the next 12 months.

If we really want to make a difference in working families' lives, our definition of wellness needs to expand. Employers are less aware that creating what we at Families and Work Institute call an "effective" workplace," (based on six measurable criteria that include a climate of respect and trust, economic security, autonomy, job challenge, a supervisor who supports your work, and work-life fit) should be considered an integral part of promoting wellness.

Families and Work Institute (FWI) just released The State of Health in the American Workforce study revealing that American employees are getting less healthy each year. Beyond their potentially terrible impact of employees, we know that health problems are very costly for employers and society at large. Our study finds that 38% of employees in workplaces ranked in the "high overall effectiveness" category report "excellent overall health." By contrast, only 19% of employees in workplaces in the "low overall effectiveness" category report "excellent overall health."

Change can be tough and sometimes, providing a gym membership can seem easier than improving the way people treat each other at work. But employer actions to improve the effectiveness and flexibility of their workplaces not only can improve employees physical and mental health, stress levels, sleep quality but employees' engagement, turnover intent and job satisfaction as well. Examples include giving employees some say about how to do their jobs and providing flexible scheduling options, and helping supervisors support employees to succeed in their jobs. Providing economic security is more challenging, especially during period of business downturn. But ensuring that there is open and regular communication about the financial state of the organization can help employees weather economic storms. In bad economic times, organizations should think creatively about ways to ensure access to benefits and career development opportunities.

During the recession, we have seen employers use social networking techniques to engage employees in making suggestions for improving the efficiency of their workplaces and thus saving money. They have used these techniques to enlist employeees help each other when in need, and foster opportunities for learning and growth. Finally, organizations can promote wellness by monitoring overwork and providing and encouraging employees to take their vacations.

By all means, employers should encourage their employees to work out and eat well. But steps to create an effective workplace cost less than many other wellness measures, and they can improve the well-being of employees and their families.

The new FWI study is fully downloadable at