Workplace Wellness: A Benefit Within Reach for Any Employer

June 17, 2024 • MEM

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Paula Nickelson, Director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Workplace wellness programs are one way to enhance the lives of employees. Further, they can help reduce work-related injuries and help a business thrive. Nicholson is responsible for management and oversight of the department and its programs, which protect the health and safety of Missourians.

As the cost of doing business continues to rise, employers are always looking for ways to ensure their operations are efficient and cost effective. Workplace wellness focuses finding areas to invest in, rather than simply cutting costs. The return on those investments can be substantial – not just for operations, but also for employees.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Workplace wellness: Elements of a program

When it comes to workplace wellness, programs can range from simple changes to comprehensive programs. “Generally, worksite wellness programs are considered interventions or education that are offered at the employee worksite to assist individuals and to promote more healthy lifestyles amongst the employees,” Nickelson explained. For example, an employer might create a walking path around the job site, or increase healthy options available in the cafeteria or break room vending machines.

The difference between a wellness program and health insurance

A wellness program and health insurance are not one and the same. Wellness programs focus on promoting healthy lifestyles, especially at work. For instance, Nickelson points out that heart disease and cancer are leading causes of death in the state of Missouri. “Both have genetic influences, but largely are driven by lifestyle choices,” she explained. A wellness program might advocates for healthier choices, such as quitting smoking, moderating drinking, and exercising more.

In contrast, health insurance often offers what is called disease management. These expensive programs focus on managing the health conditions of high-risk individuals after a diagnosis. The difference between the two can be seen most easily in their cost.

Workplace wellness programs need buy-in

It’s difficult for workplace wellness programs to be successful without buy-in. Employee participation isn’t the only thing employers need. It begins at the top with leadership. “First of all, you really need executive buy-in to really have a robust worksite wellness program,” Nickelson said. A return on investment is a good place to start. Preventative programs, such as those that focus on wellness, often keep employers from spending even more on healthcare costs in the future. In addition, an employee interest survey is a great way to gage what teams actually need and want.

Employers who implement a program see a myriad of benefits. Along with lower healthcare costs and reduced injuries, mental health and retention also improve amongst employees. Team members also tend to be more present; a more active lifestyle and improved nutrition allows them to be more focused and aware on the job. “Even those that don’t sort of don’t use it consistently appreciate the fact that their employer thinks about them,” she added. “They recognize that.”

Creating a workplace wellness program

Creating a workplace wellness program is within reach for any employer. “It doesn’t take special education,” Nickelson explains. “It just really kind of takes interest and a willingness to dig in and spend some time doing the work.” the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services offers a comprehensive toolkit. First, employers should appoint a worksite wellness coordinator. Choose someone to lead the program. They should assess employee interest, determine the best way to present it, and track participation.

What employees want and need will vary. For instance, some workplaces will focus on the needs of new mothers, while others focus on tobacco cessation. Offering healthier meal and snack choices may be a priority elsewhere. However, the most important this is to outline how these changes will be made. Identify them, determine the steps required – and then take action.

Use the power of suggestion

Workplace wellness changes don’t have to be large and immediate. Employers can start small by simply suggesting heathier choices throughout the business. “We just all need reminders sometimes, and that seems to help,” Nickelson added. Examples of highlighting healthier choices throughout the day include:

  • Encouraging extra steps. Post signs near elevators or in the parking lot, where employees could get in extra steps by taking the stairs or parking further away.
  • Comparing options. Share signs near vending or coffee machines, where employees could opt for water rather than sugary or high-caffeine drinks.
  • Making alternative available. How often are leftovers and unhealthy snacks made easily available? Fresh options options are often nutritionally better to have around.

Track your progress

It’s difficult to know how successful an effort is without tracking progress. For every change made, employers should compare where they started to their end-of-year progress. Are employees participating in competitions or challenges? Do they actually use the newly-marked walking path? Are healthier snacks provided in the vending machines actually being purchased? Asking these questions can help determine whether changes need to be made and if employees are taking advantage of the resources.

Workplace wellness: Find your champions

For Nickelson, it’s vital to find champions who will promote workplace wellness. Whether it’s company leaders or team members, there are people out there invested in different types of wellness. “There’s always going to be somebody who sees the ‘why’,” she shared. “Find those people. Find your champions, and just start. If you need to start small or you start on a shoestring budget, that’s okay.” They may thrive on physical activity, promote mental health, or value healthy eating. But they can help drive change. “Don’t be afraid to step out there and do something a little bit different. Do something that’s really going to impact your worksite.”

June 17, 2024
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