Why Ignoring Employee Wellness is A Mistake

Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, there are still some who think wellness programs are a luxury. A carrot stick for HR to dangle in front of workers that they want to recruit. Or some proof to consumers that there is extra cash to be spent on trifles such as gym memberships, health seminars, and meditation rooms. I've heard it tossed away in conversations as unimportant, ineffective, and a waste of time and money.

But here's what I have to say to these critics- you've got it all wrong.

Gone are the days when companies can afford to put employee health on the backburner. Because their wellbeing is not the cherry on top of your successful company - it is the foundation of it. When you employ a healthy, satisfied and engaged workforce, your productivity goes up, your influence expands, and your profits increase.

Isn't that what makes a company successful?

Ensuring the health and wellbeing of employees is paramount to maximizing your success.

This is critical as we are a nation whose back is breaking under the strain of illness. Consider these statistics. According to 2012 data, 117 million Americans - or roughly half of U.S. adults- have at least one chronic disease and a quarter has multiple chronic conditions. And this is a conservative estimate, measuring only the top 10 conditions. Worse yet, rates are expected to increase for certain illnesses. For example, diabetes rates could double or triple by 2050. Then there are emotional problems -approximately 18% of the population have a diagnosable mental illness. And these issues may be increasing among employees as a global analysis found that, over a 2-year period, depression increased 58%, anxiety 74% and stress 28%.

These conditions take a toll on energy, focus, mood, and collegiality, not to mention the absenteeism caused by doctor's visits, sick days, and times where one might as well be absent as they're there but not really there. It is a life lived with medications, side effects, and pain, which doesn't exactly lend itself to the most productive day, does it?

Let's face it - we are an overextended society. Many feel unable to juggle the demands of work and family life, struggle to pay the bills and feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and behind. Sadly, only about 32% of U.S. workers feel engaged in their work, and a mere 21% of employees feel strongly valued.

Don't think for a moment that issues of health and well-being aren't affecting your bottom line. Because they are.

Organizations are paying a fortune in healthcare costs to cover the high rates of illness. Employers spend up to $93 billion per year in costs due to obesity and related chronic diseases of their employees. And the indirect costs of ill health - on morale, productivity, labor force participation, job turnover, and absenteeism - may be several times greater than the direct medical costs.

So why is all of this important?

We are at a crucial point in U.S. history, as the workforce is both aging and also changing as the new ideals of the millennial generation take hold.

By 2018, nearly one-quarter of the U.S. workforce will be 55 years or older. Employers will be paying for this in healthcare costs, as many of these workers will suffer from impairments due to chronic conditions. Labor shortages are also projected, putting U.S. employers at risk of losing some of their most experienced assets. On the other hand, organizations are simultaneously grappling with different priorities of the millennial generation, who favor independence, leadership, creativity, and a healthy work-life balance. Success in this new world will depend on an employer's ability to maintain older, experienced workers, keep health care costs down, and satisfy the ideals of the incoming generations.

Organizations need to invest in measures to ensure talent acquisition, productivity, and retention if they hope to compete on a global scale.

As the Milken Institute points out, "behavioral changes such as eating better, exercising more, and smoking less... are the most cost-effective strategies to contain the growth of chronic disease". Additionally, some of the most powerful tools to influence health and well-being can be attained through simple modifications in how managers communicate to and interact with staff.

Then there is the cost-saving. According to Harvard researchers, wellness programs returned about three dollars in health care savings and about the same in costs associated with absenteeism for every dollar that the company invested. Further, it is estimated that an improvement in mental health would save companies $21.6 billion due to reduced absenteeism alone. Maybe that's why approximately 85% of U.S. companies employing 1,000 people or more offer a wellness program.

Although a few reports have cast doubt on the value of wellness programs, many are showing benefits. For example, a recent report found that 89% of employee respondents believed that wellness programs improve their wellbeing and happiness,

What's the best way forward?

To maximize the benefit of wellness programs consider the needs of your employees, the unique structure of your organization, and available resources. Adopt a broad view of health and assess where you have room to change behavior.

Having a systematic process in place is essential. This means having clear and measurable goals and taking action steps that support those goals. It means defining which employees you are most interested in reaching and determining how best to do this. Programs need to have a strong execution and on-going evaluation to optimize benefits. Consulting with health and wellness experts may be necessary to add value to the program. And don't ignore your employees - engage them in the conversation so they feel valued and heard. Their insights, needs, and desires may help with developing a program that results in high employee support. Lastly, leadership needs to be on board. Change begins from the top down. Without it, your wellness program is sunk no matter how many fancy bells and whistles you have.

If you already belong to an organization that recognizes the value of a wellness program - wonderful. For those skeptical about its value or not yet seeing a return, I'll say this - no program, product or service worth a damn was thrown out when it didn't produce a dramatic return right outside of the gate. Put your nose to the grind and show that same grit to develop and nurture it as you did your business. Because your employees and their wellness are your greatest asset. Fail to do this and someday soon, you'll suffer for it.