Do wellness programs work?

John Gribben
John Gribben

The New York Times recently published a story headlined “Do Workplace Wellness Programs Work? Usually Not.” Understandably, the story got the wellness community gnashing its teeth and wondering how anyone could possibly question the value of wellness. 

Surely, traditional wellness programs that encourage employees to adopt such healthy practices as increasing physical activity, eating healthy foods, curbing alcohol use and stopping smoking can’t be bad.

There are a number of arguments both for and against (mainly for) wellness programs I won’t get into here. However, one point got me thinking the other day as I was attempting to dig a hole in my yard to plant a new tree.

My yard has lousy soil in a few areas. I suspect the house was built on uranium tailings. A fan on the side of the house pulls radon out of the basement.  So the soil isn’t just rocky and devoid of organic material, it’s toxic.

It struck me that just as plants won’t thrive in lousy soil, employees won’t thrive in toxic work environments.  Wellness plunked into an unhealthy work environment is like watering a new tree planted in barren soil. The tree might initially survive, but certainly won’t thrive and is easily uprooted during stormy weather.

Rebecca Weitzel, wellness coordinator for Hilltop Community Resources in Grand Junction, discussed this connection between a healthy culture and traditional wellness programs. When she was first hired, her boss asked what her goal was for the program. At first she thought it should be to reduce health care costs, but then realized what she really wanted was to help transform the culture. I hadn’t told her my thoughts about soil and culture yet, but could see she wanted to create a rich, dark, loamy culture that would help employees grow and develop. Health care cost savings would likely follow, but that wasn’t her primary concern.

Weitzel said there were a number of components to building and sustaining a healthy culture. Leadership buy-in and active participation was essential. Hilltop leaders have embraced wellness as a key corporate value that’s been integrated into their strategic plans. Company policies also hard wire wellness values into the organization.  It’s not enough to simply offer health risk assessments, biometric screening and classes. Supervisor buy-in and support can undermine or encourage wellness initiatives. Supervisors are in a position to give employees the time to participate. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a supervisor cracking jokes or making sarcastic remarks about wellness activities can hinder participation. Program directors and employees are encouraged to come up with their own wellness initiatives and challenges.

So how can you measure how “fertile” your organizational culture is? 

Hilltop decided one way to measure the health of its culture was to participate in the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award process. After conducting employee surveys, focus groups, leadership interviews and other measures, Cindy Wang Morris, Colorado representative of the Psychology in the Workplace Network for the Colorado Psychological Association announced Hilltop was Colorado’s top organization. Hilltop went on to win the national Psychologically Healthy Workplace award in the category for medium-sized, not-for-profit organizations. 

The five areas identified by the American Psychological Association to create and sustain a healthy culture include employee development, growth, involvement and recognition as well as health and safety and work-life balance. 

I’d like to think of these five areas as essential ways to amend even the most barren and rocky soil.