Andy Hawkes talks about the strategic imperative on organisations to deliver employee wellness programmes

Since the mid-90s, the percentage of citizens who smoke has dropped by more than two-thirds. Research (Harvard Business Review) confirms that the number who have high blood pressure or who are physically inactive also has declined—by more than half. That’s great, obviously, but should it matter to managers? Well, it turns out that a comprehensive, strategically designed investment in employees’ social, mental, and physical health pays off. One global company’s leaders estimate that wellness programmes have cumulatively saved the company £150 million on health care costs over a 10 year period, the return was £2.00 for every pound spent.

Wellness programmes have often been viewed as a nice extra, not a strategic imperative. Perhaps it’s time to change?

Stand Up for Your Life

What is workplace wellness?

The best definition we have seen is, “an organised, employer-sponsored programme that is designed to support employees (and, sometimes, their families) as they adopt and sustain behaviours that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the organisation’s bottom line.”

Healthy employees cost you less. In the US, Doctors Richard Milani and Carl Lavie demonstrated that point by studying, at a single employer, a random sample of 185 workers and their spouses. The participants were not heart patients, but they received cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training from an expert team. Of those classified as high risk when the study started (according to body fat, blood pressure, anxiety, and other measures), 57% were converted to low-risk status by the end of the six-month programme. Furthermore, medical claim costs had declined by $1,421 per participant, compared with those from the previous year. A control group showed no such improvements.

The bottom line: Every dollar invested in the intervention yielded $6 in health care savings.

What’s more, healthy employees stay with your company. A study by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health shows that organisations with highly effective wellness programmes report significantly lower voluntary attrition than do those whose programmes have low effectiveness (9% vs. 15%). At the software firm SAS Institute, voluntary turnover is just 4%, thanks in part to such a programme.

The pillars of an effective workplace wellness programme

Strategically integrated wellness programmes have six strong pillars that simultaneously support their success, regardless of the size of the organisation. Construct them well, and your institution could see significant returns.

1. Multilevel leadership

Creating a culture of health takes passionate, persistent, and persuasive leadership at all levels—from the C-suite to middle managers to the people who have “wellness” in their job descriptions.

It’s easy to find employees who don’t participate in wellness programmes. Some cite lack of time, little perceived benefit, or just a distaste for exercise. Others don’t know about available services or blame unsupportive managers. A few think their health is none of the company’s business or mistrust management’s motives. As with any worthwhile initiative, creating a culture of health takes passionate, persistent, and persuasive leadership.

Top down commitment

Although employee health correlates with financial health, workers won’t buy into a programme that’s just about money. If the CEO makes time for exercise, for instance, employees will feel less self-conscious about taking a fitness break. When a CEO asks an employee “how’s your wellness?” you know culture has changed.

Middle management

Except in tiny companies, most employees report to a middle manager. By shaping mini-cultures in the workplace, middle managers can support employees’ wellness efforts. Some companies even ask managers to adopt a personal health goal as one of their unit’s business goals.

Wellness programme managers

Larger firms should consider wellness managers. The best wellness managers connect their expertise to the culture and strategy of the organisation. These people are collaborative by nature, and analytical and credible by background and performance. It’s no ordinary management job.

Wellness champions

Volunteer health ambassadors offer local, on-the-ground encouragement, education, and mentoring—in addition to organising and promoting local health events.

2. Alignment

A wellness programme should be a natural extension of a firm’s identity and aspirations. Don’t forget that a cultural shift takes time.

It’s not unusual for firms to enter the wellness space with a big splash that subsides to a ripple. As management priorities shift, the opportunity to integrate a culture of health can pass. But many executives forget that the cultural shift takes time. Planning and patience is essential.

Carrots, not sticks

Evidence suggests that incentives are essential because employees lose trust when they feel they’re being forced to act against their wishes.

A complement to business priorities

If a programme doesn’t make business sense, it’s automatically vulnerable. The key is to make wellness a business KPI alongside all other KPIs

3. Scope, relevance, and quality

Wellness programmes must be comprehensive, engaging, and just plain excellent. Otherwise, employees won’t participate.

It’s not unusual for a company to think about employee health narrowly. Exercise is exercise, right? But employees’ wellness needs vary tremendously.

More than cholesterol

Wellness isn’t just about physical fitness. Depression and stress, in particular, have proved to be major sources of lost productivity. Wellness programme administrators need to think beyond diet and exercise. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are great but well trained managers who look at wellness when reviewing performance are just as critical.


Never forget the pleasure principle in wellness initiatives. Consider a Wellness Day—with the theme Joy, Play, Spirit or the Global Corporate Challenge that gets companies from around the world to compete on the number of steps taken each day.

4. Accessibility

Aim to make low- or no-cost services a priority. True on-site integration is essential because convenience matters.

True on-site integration

Not many forms can afford on-site fitness centres but employees at companies who have them love them, and employees at other companies want them. The alternative is to encourage and subsidize gym membership and why not encourage wellness activities as part of the working day? Bring in yoga, pilates and fitness experts. Get nutritionists in to help diets and if you have a café or canteen make sure the food is healthy.

Going mobile

Organisations increasingly use online resources to deliver wellness. Companies can also make wellness websites available on smartphones to increase portability. For decentralised companies, online access is critical, although high-tech tools must be complemented by high-touch programmes that unite individuals in a culture of health.

5. Partnerships

Active, ongoing collaboration with internal and external partners, including suppliers, can provide a programme with some of its essential components and many of its desirable enhancements.
Internal partnerships help wellness programmes gain credibility. So if one part of your business has expertise, use it!

6. Communications

Wellness is not just a mission—it’s a message. How you deliver it can make all the difference. Sensitivity, creativity, and media diversity are the cornerstones.

Wellness communications must overcome individual apathy, the sensitivity of personal health issues, and the geographic, demographic, and cultural heterogeneity of employees. The range and complexity of wellness services also can pose challenges.

Media diversity also helps. Some firms include information about wellness in regular corporate updates and magazines. Make sure you feature health-related messages on your intranet portal, advertise specific wellness benefits, post flyers about health in lifts and stairwells, and distribute wellness stickers and magnets. Include fruit in the office rather than sweets!

The fruits of workplace wellness

Although some health risk factors, such as heredity, cannot be modified, focused education and personal discipline can change others such as smoking, physical inactivity, weight gain, and alcohol use—and, by extension, hypertension, high cholesterol, and even depression. The results are worth the effort.

Wellness and wellness programmes have been around a long time and despite clear evidence that a healthy workforce delivers better returns, we still have too few leaders investing in the wellness of their staff. It’s time to change.


Lower costs – the financial cost of workplace absence in the UK is put at £29bn and in the US this is estimated to be $84bn

Greater productivity – Participants in wellness programmes are absent less often and perform better at work than their nonparticipant counterparts

Higher morale – Employee pride, trust and commitment increase contribute to a vigorous organisation

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This article features in our risk management magazine, Cardinus Connect. Download it for free here.

Andy Hawkes is the CEO of Cardinus Risk Management and has over 30 years in the industry, you can connect with him on LinkedIn here.


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