Raising the Bar on Corporate Wellness

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), chronic diseases and related lifestyle risk factors are the leading drivers of health care costs for employers: About 86% of full-time workers are overweight or have at least one chronic illness, and those who fall into both categories miss hundreds of millions of days of work each year - resulting in over $153 billion in lost productivity annually. It is no surprise, then, that as of 2014, 73% of small companies and 98% of large companies offered at least one wellness program.

"Companies are constantly looking for ways to improve the working environment," said Peter Allison - Senior Vice President of Technology Innovation at the Arizona Health Sciences Center - in our recent interview. "It's a myth that companies are trying to get the most out of somebody and then burn them out and throw them away. That exists in very foolish companies, but not in those that are truly successful."

That said, not all wellness programs are created equal. As also indicated by the CDC, work-related stress is the leading workplace health problem, more so than physical inactivity and obesity. Still, most wellness programs support employees through exercise, weight loss, and smoking cessation.

A growing number of companies, however - from hi-tech corporations like Yahoo and Intel, to healthcare corporations like Kaiser Permanente and Genentech - are taking a more holistic and sophisticated view of health. To this end, on-site meditation, tai chi, and yoga classes are popping up in companies across America, as are bike-to-work programs, gardening clubs, and even incentivized volunteer opportunities in local communities.

"We don't want our employees to just focus on fitness and nutrition," explained Scott Schulman, president of Rodale, in our recent interview. "We want them to think about the big picture: how they live and thrive in their lives, day to day, and help others to do the same."

Of particular interest is the way that companies like Rodale are infusing wellness into their everyday activities: Prior to a training session, Rodale executives are likely to gather for a mindfulness meditation, and the company not only offers an organic farm-to-table eatery, but also encourages employees to break together for lunch and enjoy each other's company.

These kinds of practices are what I refer to as "healthy multitasking" between the seven spokes of the Slow Medicine Wheel of Health:

In the Slow Medicine model, we focus neither on "fighting" nor on "preventing" disease, but rather, on optimizing wellness - thereby entirely stepping away from the disease mindset. To this end, we recognize the inter-connected web of our physical body; mental-emotional state; relationship to loved ones, community, nature, and the divine; and life's purpose, the latter of which centralizes our heartfelt role in the process and provides us with the energy we require to connect the dots between all these moving parts, thereby elevating the whole.

By working our health on each of these levels, simultaneously when possible, we create a synergistic effect that is not possible when we address only one aspect at a time.

When we shop at a farmer's market, for example, we not only access fresh and nutrient-dense food, which in turn enhances our physical health. We also engage in community, which enhances our mental-emotional health, and we devote our resources to sustainable agriculture and local business, which enhances our sense of life's purpose. In the latter case, through contributing to the greater good of humanity, we feel a sense of meaning and belonging, which in turn fuels our desire to be well and function optimally, in a never-ending positive loop.

This kind of multi-layered benefit has motivated some companies to host on-site local farmers markets - in the case of Kaiser Permanente, at 50 medical centers and offices across the country. Corporate wellness program executives have noticed the impact: "Those who shop at the markets have said they are eating more fruits and vegetables and consuming a greater variety of produce because of these markets," said Kathy Gerwig - vice president of Employee Safety, Health and Wellness at Kaiser Permanente - in our recent interview.

The new buzzword, said Kenneth R. Pelletier, PhD, MD(hc) - director of the Corporate Health Improvement Program, which works with Fortune 500 companies - is a culture of health. "What they're really looking at is how the company produces a total environment that's conducive to health and wellbeing," he noted in our recent interview, "so that wellness is the expectation, the norm."

Vanishing are the days, concur Pelletier and Allison, when employees were expected to work long nights and weekends, so as to advance in a company. Instead, corporations are looking at sustainable work models. "Ultimately, healthy and happy employees create amazing products and do amazing things," said Jeff Brady, Senior Manager of Benefits at Yahoo, in our recent interview, "so having robust wellness programs really benefits everyone."

The trend, Pelletier elaborates, "is not so much programmatic as it is literally changing the total environment of the workplace" - spanning the gamut from wholesome foods in the cafeteria, to mandatory vacations, to fun social time with fellow employees.

Some wellness professionals are driving these programs even one step further. Jeff Arnold, CEO of Sharecare, is especially passionate about utilizing technology to optimize employee wellness. "The trick," he said in our recent interview, "is driving real engagement, so that people are hyper self-aware of their wellbeing and volunteer to participate in making themselves the healthiest they can be."

To this end, Sharecare uses the RealAge test, a digital tool for gathering data about lifestyle and medical history, to help evaluate one's current state of health and identify opportunities for improvement. Building on the foundation of this medical baseline, Sharecare recently developed and is currently testing a voice-recognition app that detects stress levels - evaluating fractal patterns in the voice, as someone talks into the phone throughout the day. This kind of real-time biofeedback, Arnold says, is likely to create the kind of awareness that is a necessary first step to changing behavior.

In line with this thinking, Pelletier said that while the overwhelming majority of studies on corporate wellness indicate positive clinical outcomes for return on investment (ROI), the new rubric of value on investment (VOI) is perhaps more important - evaluating whether workers are happier and feeling greater job satisfaction, and whether companies are able to recruit and retain key personnel, since introducing corporate wellness programs. While these metrics are less tangible, Pelletier says, they are definitely measurable.

Regardless of incentives, emphasizes Brady, "promoting wellness is simply the right thing to do." Given that the preponderance of chronic illness has steadily increased over the past few decades, this kind of sentiment bodes well for the role of corporations in helping reestablish our collective wellness. "We just want people to be healthy and have a great life," Brady concludes.