Wellness programmes are one of the largest investments a company can make in its employees. However, for many years companies only saw the costs of wellness programmes, not the benefits.

Fortunately, this is changing. Research and practice is showing that effective health and wellness programmes have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. This makes an employee wellness programme (EWP) an attractive proposition for business to consider – but what is wellness? Wellness or wellbeing means different things to different people. Even in the research literature, it is a hard concept to pin down.  In its broadest sense, wellness is a person’s physical, social, psychological wellbeing and quality of life. So wellness is a holistic concept that does not only refer to your physical health but also how you are able to work productively in society – which includes the workplace. Disease, stress-related disorders, life-style diseases, psychological challenges and general poor lifestyle habits impact performance at work – directly and indirectly.  Absenteeism may increase, productivity may be affected, mistakes may rise, levels of motivation may fall, and even the degree of loyalty and investment an employee makes in a company may be negatively affected. A healthy workforce is more productive – it is in the best interests of business to ensure employees stay healthy, make positive health choices, and use every opportunity to become healthier.   And one of the most direct ways companies have to ensure healthy employees is through an efficient, effective EWP. But there is no recipe for the perfect EWP, there is no one standard of best practice, or a definitive list of steps to ensure all the right parts of an EWP are in place. Each company is different, with different needs, a different culture, and different resources. So, the question is: what do you do to set up the best possible EWP for your company? Recent 2011 research by Charlotte Sieberhagen, Jaco Pienaar and Crizelle Els in the South African Journal of Human Resource Management raises some interesting questions about EWPs which are critical to consider when starting an EWP. What does wellness mean to your stakeholders? One of the first things to consider when setting up an EWP is to understand what an EWP means to different interest groups in the organisation. The research by Sieberhagen and colleagues found that no stakeholder groups in companies could agree on what EWP actually was. In fact, the 27 organisations, unions and service providers surveyed defined employee wellness in 27 ways! How does one set up an EWP that is accepted, utilised and effective if stakeholder groups cannot agree on what it is, and what it should include? It is essential to negotiate and agree on the limits and boundaries of what EWP can and will include. It is useful to include representatives from all stakeholder groups from the start of the planning process, ensure committees are representative, and make sure there is agreement on what the EWP will look like. Why are you implementing a wellness programme in the first place? This is related to the problem of defining employee wellness. The research by Sieberhagen and colleagues found that companies tended to implement EWPs in a reactive way. They were reacting to unproductive behaviour, absenteeism, increased sick leave and so forth. Or they were reacting to social pressure for business to demonstrate corporate responsibility. But to get the best value from an EWP, you need to be more proactive. First, find out what wellness issues are the most common in your workplace – perhaps it is stress-related illnesses, heart disease, hypertension, chronic fatigue. Or perhaps it is life-style diseases, or maybe HIV. Then consider what work-related factors are causing, aggravating or promoting the behaviour or disease. For instance, you may have worrying levels of absenteeism. Consider why this is the case – is it due to high levels of infectious illnesses, stress, or perhaps management changes? What does an effective wellness programme look like? Once you have an EWP, what will your markers of success be? Will you have measurable indicators and use statistics such as number of absenteeism days, sick leave taken, attendance at an on-site clinic or use of a wellness service provider’s facilities perhaps?  These are all valid markers, but be careful – these are only utilisation rates. To truly measure whether a service is effective, you will need to also measure the quality of service, the need for the service, and the degree of trust in the service. Measuring employee needs It is interesting that Sieberhagen and her colleagues found that only a quarter of the companies that they surveyed measured their employees’ EWP needs. A proper needs assessment can tell you what services are in highest demand. And this will enable the wellness programme to meet the most frequent needs. But Sieberhagen cautions that a needs analysis should not be used in isolation. A needs analysis can be slightly biased – asking employees what they think they need is quite subjective.  So it is important to also consider using sick leave records, reports from service providers, and ergonomic analyses to get a bigger picture of what wellness needs exist.  If an effective, comprehensive needs analysis is done, it is more likely that the programme will be accepted, and better utilised. So, to get the best value from an employee wellness programme, consider the needs of the organisation, the resources available, involve all stakeholders in the planning and implementation of the EWP and track progress to ensure the programme stays on track. References Forbes. (2012). Four steps to implement a successful employee wellness program. http://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2012/11/28/4-steps-to-implement-a-successful-employee-wellness-program/ Sieberhagen, C., Pienaar, J. & Els, C. (2011). Management of employee wellness in South Africa: Employer, service provider and union perspectives.  SA Journal of Human Resource Management/SA Tydskrif vir Menslikehulpbronbestuur, 9(1). Author: Imago Solutions