Workers who are healthier are more productive, use less sick leave, and decrease your medical costs. They also tend to be less accident-prone. But workers’ health is not something you control; it’s something they have to take responsibility for on their own. Workplace wellness programs are all about supporting workers’ own commitment to their health, but when it comes to wellness programs, what actually works?
A review conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and published in 2016 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggests that the first trick is to create a strong culture of health within your workplace.
The Workplace as ‘Patient’
What exactly is a “culture of health,” and how can you build one in your workplace? As with any physical building, the first thing you must do is the groundwork—and in the case of a culture of health, that means making sure that the workplace itself is fundamentally nontoxic. The editors of the Health Affairs blog suggest viewing “the organization as the ‘patient’ requiring interventions that contain psychosocial elements.” In other words, if the workplace atmosphere is generally unfriendly, unhappy, and unpleasant, your attempts to foster a culture of health will probably be unsuccessful.
Make an effort to resolve chronic indicators of an organization that is, itself, in poor health, such as:
- Lack of trust between workers and management, which generally stems from a perception that management is not being honest or fair.
- Unreasonable job demands, which can occur when the workplace is understaffed—leading to workload management issues—or when workers are ill-fitted to their jobs. Although workers who are qualified for their jobs “on paper”—that is, using objective criteria—may be a good fit, the workers’ subjective perception of how well they fit their job may actually be more important. No amount of technical training will overcome an employee’s own perception that they are not well-suited to their job.
- Lack of support for healthy lifestyles resulting from a discrepancy between the organization’s stated goals and the organization’s own policies. For example, if employees are told that it is important for them to participate in wellness screenings but are then expected to do so on their own time rather than company time, they may feel that the employer does not truly value the screenings. If workers are taught that it’s important for them to get enough sleep but are then expected to work double shifts in understaffed departments, they’ll believe that the company values working over sleeping.
The Physical Environment
In addition to addressing psychosocial factors that can undermine your organization’s health culture, you’ll need to address physical factors in the work environment that are unsupportive. Possible examples include:
- Creating fitness opportunities at or near the workplace. Are there walking trails, stairwells, or other places where workers can stretch their legs before or after work or during breaks? Is there a gym or fitness center near the workplace that you could partner with to offer free or discounted memberships? Could employees bike to work if you provided bike racks and locks?
- Ensuring that healthy food is available. This is especially an issue for second- and third-shift workers, who may be on duty when the cafeteria and all nearby restaurants are closed. Even in areas with 24-hour grocery stores, deli and salad bar options are probably not available overnight.
- Attending to workplace conditions that can be hazardous to workers’ health. For example, if workers use hazardous chemicals as part of their jobs, or if they work in a noisy environment, has a genuine effort been made to reduce those exposures? If you’re permitting workers to be exposed to health hazards on the job, they probably won’t believe you when you insist that you care about their health behaviors off the job.
The second factor identified by the researchers at Johns Hopkins was a tailored health communication strategy—more on that tomorrow.