The one surprising way a workplace wellness program can give SMEs an advantage

Workplace wellness programs are becoming increasingly popular amongst large US employers who are always motivated to obtain greater productivity from their workforce. But are these initiatives effective? And should smaller employers consider such a program? The results of recent studies suggest that SMEs may in fact have a surprising edge here.

What are workplace wellness programs?

Workplace wellness programs are designed to encourage employees to take better care of their physical and mental wellness, with a goal of establishing new health and wellness improving behaviours over the long-term. Examples of workplace wellness programs include:

  • Making healthy meals available on-site.
  • On-site gym facilities, or subsidies gym memberships.
  • Smoking cessation programs.
  • Mindfulness-based interventions, e.g. to reduce the risk of burnout.

Some programs may include the use of health-related apps, which can be effective at promoting healthy actions and establishing healthy behaviours, although there are risks around apps that have tracking capabilities that businesses should be mindful of.

Why do companies initiate workplace wellness programs?

The link between health and productivity is clear on an intuitive level. For blue collar workers who have more physical tasks, the link is obvious since feeling unwell or unhealthy can directly inhibit your productivity. For white collar office workers, being in a better physical state often has mental benefits which will also manifest as improved performance. But measuring these improvements may not be so straight forward, and ultimately large corporations are focussed on the bottom line and require simple metrics to measure performance.

So, the motivation for workplace wellness programs in large companies generally boils down to two metrics: medical spending, and absenteeism.

Are workplace wellness programs effective?

The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study was a large randomized controlled trial (RCT) designed to evaluate the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs in the state, and this major study pointed out an uncomfortable truth for champions of such initiatives: thus far, there is limited evidence to support the argument that workplace wellness programs can substantially decrease medical costs or absenteeism.

These results suggest that more work is needed to improve the efficacy of such programs. One strategy that has shown some success is the introduction of elements of gamification. Another important factor is the role of manager support in driving employee engagement with the program.

Is this for SMEs?

Although behaviour change may be the stated goal of a workplace wellness study, there is evidence to suggest that it may have an unintended consequence: it may in fact attract individuals who are already committed to maintaining their health and wellbeing.

Intuitively this makes sense, especially with millennial employees who are especially interested in “softer” aspects of a company beyond just monetary gain. If a company has a wellness program, then individuals who are likely to appreciate such a program will be attracted to this company, and all things being equal a health-conscious individual would rather work for a company that invests in a wellness program.

Effectively, these programs may act as a “screening mechanism” for healthy employees. It is crucial to note that this is a form of self-selection: it isn’t the employer who is discriminating potential employees on the basis of their health and wellness, rather it’s healthy individuals who are selecting companies that are more aligned with their values – in this case the values are to do with commitment to wellness.

The result of this self-selectivity bias for large employers will not be substantial simply due to the law of large numbers. Large employers will intrinsically have a more diverse workforce. But for smaller employers, this could pose a significant edge.

How SMEs can get an edge with workplace wellness programs

Behaviour change is not easy at an individual level, and it is far more difficult across a large population of individuals, such as across the workforce of a large corporation. But the effects can be more profound for smaller groups.

Starting with a group of healthy individuals creates a critical mass of healthy behaviours that can become self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. So beyond the initial “self-screening” effect that a workplace wellness program may have, such a program can arm an SME with a highly engaged and productive workforce, which is a major advantage in this economy.

About the author

Sam Rooi is the editor of Intrepid Wellbeing – a site dedicated to the promotion of wellness and wellbeing at home, at work, and on the road – and also the product manager of Intrepid Pillbox – an app to improve medical adherence for frequent travellers.

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