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Employee Wellness: Are We There Yet?

Yesterday, one of my meetings was with Carol, the Chief Sustainability Officer of an international company. Together we’re mapping out the best way to improve the health and wellbeing of her company’s 64,000 employees. Delving into this complex topic makes me smile. But this wasn’t always a smiling matter.

Twenty years ago I don’t think I could have named a single CSO— or anyone at the VP level or above with “sustainability” as their primary mission. Back in 1990 when I was head of corporate health promotion at a global information technology company, my department’s biggest challenge was to prove, without a doubt, that investing in employee wellness would generate financial returns. My team spent hours upon hours crafting data-filled business cases. We worked hard to substantiate the worth of reducing cardiovascular and other disease risks, helping employees manage their stress, and keeping workers well. It was challenging work; often frustrating. There we were, justifying wellness to our leaders rather than creating and fostering it.

Any executive today who doesn’t understand the reasons for fostering employee health hasn’t been paying attention. Studies have shown time and time again that thriving employees spend less of the company’s health care dollars, have fewer injuries and medical claims, and are more productive than their colleagues. A 2010 University of Michigan cost-benefit analysis reports that workers with the highest health risks (representing 17 percent of the workforce) demand 2.3 times more of the company’s health care costs than their healthier colleagues.

Just as there are hard costs for an unhealthy workforce, there are positive returns for a healthy one. A recent multi-year study by Johnson & Johnson shares that their “wellness programs have cumulatively saved the company $250 million on health care costs over the past decade; from 2002 to 2008, the return was $2.71 for every dollar spent.” These numbers don’t even factor in the benefits these programs have made on employee productivity, engagement, and attendance.

Based on findings like those of J&J, senior organizational consultants at Towers Watson have developed a new model they call “exponential employee engagement.” In a recent discussion of their new model, they explained that an environment of wellbeing is a core differentiator in truly engaging employees’ hearts, minds, and spirits.

Back to Carol. I sincerely enjoy talking with her— she reminds me how far leaders have come in the past two decades. She’s thinking well beyond business cases or justification of ROI. She realizes that the health of employees is a powerful mechanism for boosting workplace performance and engagement … and she’s working to make a difference. That makes me smile. But remember this isn’t the end of the work, it’s the very beginning. So yesterday I put to Carol a few questions:

  • How are you creating the conditions for authentic wellbeing within your workplace?
  • What are you doing to decrease the health risks of your employees, while helping healthy employees continue to thrive?
  • How are you role-modeling vitality? Are you using your leadership actions and communications as well as your lifestyle to demonstrate the power of wellness at work?

Carol was zipping right along through these questions until that last one. She searched for the answer and was at a loss. In the discussion that ensued, she quickly made a commitment to replace the bowl of candy on her desk with whole fruit, to take the stairs instead of the elevator to meetings, to leave the office at a reasonable time each day, and to eat foods which are energizing rather than depleting.

On the BBC program “The Joy of Stats,” global health expert Hans Rosling shows (in four short, very creative minutes!) how human health and wellbeing has evolved in 200 countries over the past 2 centuries. The prognosis? While we still have many health challenges, our societies are generally healthier as a rule. As leaders, we can be inspired by the fact that building a culture of health in our organizations has a triple advantage: serving individual employees, companies on the whole, and even the societies in which we live, work, and play. Now that’s really something to smile about.

Photo by Nina Matthews Photography