The Missing Link in Workplace Wellness


By Guest Contributor Emily O’Sullivan | corporate wellness specialist, South Carolina Hospital Association’s Working Well Initiative

Make wellness a permanent part of the fabric of your organization


Most employers are all too familiar with the cost burden of poor employee health, including increased health care costs, absenteeism, lost productivity and poor employee morale. The simple truth is that unhealthy employees are less productive and engaged than their healthier peers. In fact, according to the Partnership for Prevention, the indirect costs of poor employee health from sick leave, disability and presenteeism (underperformance due to illness or injury) can be two to three times the direct medical costs.

Approximately half of U.S. employers offer workplace wellness initiatives to improve employee health and combat these costs. Most of these employers offer traditional wellness program components such as a health risk assessments, screenings, education, health coaching and challenges, while failing to address perhaps the most foundational aspect of organizational and employee health: policy, systems and environmental change. While behavior change programs can be effective at producing individual change, programming alone will never be effective at changing organizational culture.


EmployeeWellness_CostsAddressing policies, systems, environment and benefits is essential to producing a sustainable culture of wellness for a few key reasons:


–These changes are often low- or no-cost, making them attainable for all employers regardless of size and available resources.

–Policy, systems and environmental changes impact 100 percent of the employee population, while programs only impact those employees who choose to participate, often missing those who need it most.

–These changes help to produce lasting results because they are more permanent, unlike programs which come and go from year to year.

–Policy, systems and environmental changes approach employee health from an organizational level rather than just an individual level.

Approaching workplace wellness from a policy and environmental level helps to enhance, align and sustain current wellness efforts. Wellness becomes a part of the fabric of the organization.

Employers have a unique opportunity to impact population health. Employees spend the majority of their waking hours at work, making the workplace an ideal environment to impact health behavior.

Programming, policy, environment and benefits must all align and work together to create consistent messages where the healthy choice is the easy choice. A comprehensive workplace wellness program must not only include assessments, screenings and educational programs, but also policies, onsite resources, benefits, and incentives to support the healthy choice, as well as participation from all levels of leadership within the organization.


Examples of policies to support employee health include:


–A 100 percent tobacco-free, property-wide policy.

–A healthy food policy to ensure that delicious, affordable, healthy foods are available to employees during all hours of operation.

–A physical activity policy to allow employees to exercise on paid time, to offer flex time for physical activity, or to encourage the use of paid breaks for physical activity.

Examples of environmental changes to support employee health include:

–Providing employees with easy access to fitness equipment or a walking trail on site.

–Providing and promoting healthy foods in cafeterias and vending machines through product placement and pricing strategies.

–Eliminating ashtrays and tobacco receptacles from the property to discourage the use of tobacco products.


Examples of benefits to support employee health include:


–Providing employees with low-cost tobacco cessation prescription medications and over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapies.

–Covering nutritional counseling for all employees.

–Providing discounts to local fitness facilities.

Policy, systems, and environmental change takes time, effort and a strong commitment from organizational leadership. Employees are an organization’s most valuable asset, so the investment in human capital is more than worth it. There is no question that the work environment has a strong influence on employee health. Employers can either choose to support or unwittingly sabotage their employees in their health improvement efforts.


EmilyOSullivanEmily O’Sullivan is the corporate wellness specialist for the South Carolina Hospital Association’s Working Well Initiative, a cross-sector strategy addressing healthy eating and active, tobacco-free living to establish cultures of wellness in worksites throughout South Carolina. She is a member of LiveWell Greenville’s At Work group, a graduate of Clemson University and has been working in corporate health promotion for the past five years. 






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