A new study by researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sheds new light on the impact on increasingly popular workplace wellness programs on employees’ actual health outcomes. The effectiveness of these programs has not been extensively researched, as they are relatively new and rely on an evolving set of strategies and technologies, and studies so far have drawn mixed conclusions. The new research, Kaiser Health News senior correspondent Julie Appleby explains, had a more sophisticated design than many past studies in this area: The researchers randomly chose 20 BJ’s Wholesale Club outlets to offer a wellness program to all their employees, then compared their results with 140 other stores with no program, covering a total study group of almost 33,000 employees.
Unfortunately, the researchers found no significant correlation between the introduction of the wellness program and a strong improvement in employee health:
After 18 months, it turned out that yes, workers participating in the wellness programs self-reported healthier behavior, such as exercising more or managing their weight better than those not enrolled. But the efforts did not result in differences in health measures, such as improved blood sugar or glucose levels; how much employers spent on health care; or how often employees missed work, their job performance or how long they stuck around in their jobs.
The BJ’s wellness program offered small incentives for participation: Employees could receive about $250 in small-dollar gift cards for taking courses on nutrition, exercise, and other wellness topics. Around 35 percent of eligible employees completed at least one course throughout the duration of the study. One wellness program vendor commented to KHN that the limited impact of the program may have come down to the incentives being too small:
Jim Pshock, founder and CEO of Bravo Wellness, said the incentives offered to BJ’s workers might not have been large enough to spur the kinds of big changes needed to affect health outcomes. Amounts of “of less than $400 generally incentivize things people were going to do anyway. It’s simply too small to get them to do things they weren’t already excited about,” he said.
The CIPD and UK mental health charity Mind issued a new resource this week, the People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health, to help managers better identify and address mental health issues in the workplace, People Management reported on Wednesday:
Among the publication’s suggestions were using regular catch-ups and supervised meetings to monitor staff wellbeing and being alert to potential workplace triggers for distress, such as long hours or unmanageable workloads. The report also recommended businesses work to address the stigma still attached to mental health and encourage people to talk openly about their needs. The publication stressed that managers must be prepared to broach important dialogues and offer support. …
Following a disclosure of mental ill-health at work, managers should be prepared to make reasonable adjustments – such as relaxing requirements to work set hours in favour of flexible working, giving employees time off for appointments related to their mental health, such as therapy or counselling, and increasing one-to-one supervisions with staff.
The guide is written for readers in the UK and refers to some laws, regulations, and conventions specific to that country, but the bulk of its advice is applicable to managers anywhere. Research conducted last year by the UK health provider Bupa found that more than one in three line managers would have difficulty identifying mental health problems among their staff, while 30 per cent would not know what to do if a member of their team had a mental health problem.
Financial wellbeing programs that help employees better manage their finances, pay down debt, and plan for retirement have become commonplace among private US employers. Employees want this kind of help and employers are increasingly eager to offer it. Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 2018 Workplace Benefits Report, however, finds that only one third of employees are actually participating in these programs, even though many more are struggling with financial fitness, Nick Otto reports at Employee Benefit News. One potential explanation for this low level of engagement is that the financial wellness benefits employers are offering are misaligned with employees’ own priorities:
Employers tend to focus on actions to manage immediate financial needs, such as budgeting and handling expenses, according to the study. Meanwhile, employees mostly prioritize long-term financial goals, such as tactics that help them save and invest for the future. The report finds workers are looking to their employers to help manage their financial lives, shining a light on what employees seek in an employer-sponsored financial wellness program.
Employees feel the best approach to improve financial wellness is getting a personal financial assessment, supported by specific actions to take. Additionally, employees would also like help measuring their progress, through tracking and measuring of accomplishments.
Another notable finding from the report is that few employees recognize the role of health care costs in their financial planning: 7 percent identified health care as a key component of financial wellness, even though more than half said they had skipped or postponed a medical need to save money. The connection between health care costs and financial wellbeing is particularly salient in the US; for instance, many experts have promoted the use of health savings accounts as long-term savings and investment vehicles, comparable to 401(k) plans for retirement.
Prudential’s 10th annual Benefits and Beyond: Employer Perspectives on Financial Wellness survey finds that the number of US employers offering financial wellbeing benefits has grown exponentially in the past two years. This year’s study, data for which was collected in September-October 2017, finds that 83 percent of employers are offering these programs, compared to just 20 percent in the last study, conducted in June-July 2015.
In fact, Prudential’s data show that more employers offer this benefit today than the combined total of those who said they already offered it, planned to offer it, and would like to offer it in 2015. An additional 14 percent say they plan to offer financial wellbeing benefits in the next one to two years, indicating that these programs will soon be nearly universal among US employers.
Employers are also offering a wider variety of financial wellbeing programs, Prudential found: seven, on average. The most common of these include digital portals, tools and calculators to help employees measure their financial health, retirement planning assistance, and access to financial advice or advisors—though recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that only about 20 percent of US employees have access to financial advising services through their employer. Employers told Prudential that they were measuring the success of these initiatives along several metrics, including employee satisfaction, retirement plan participation, productivity gains, and ROI.
Last month, PwC rolled out a $45 million investment in its employee wellness program, including a suite of new benefits for working parents, Glassdoor’s Amy Elisa Jackson reported at the time:
- $1000 bonus to all staff to spend on wellness-related activities;
- Four weeks of “Paid Family Care Leave” for all partners and staff to care for certain family member with serious health conditions;
- Eight weeks of paid parental leave for staff of any gender with a new child (currently six);
- New “Phased Return to Work” transition, with the option of new parents working 60% of hours, at full-time pay, for an additional four weeks following a block of paid parental leave;
- $25K reimbursement, per child, for adoption (currently $5K);
- $25K reimbursement, per child, for surrogacy (traditional and gestational) expenses;
- Pro bono membership to sittercity.com (childcare, housekeeping, pet care services);
- Six hours of free Eldercare consultation (home assessments, implementation of care, etc.)
These expanded benefits, which according to Amanda Eisenberg at Employee Benefit News will go into effect on July 1, mirror what many other large US employers are doing to make their family benefits more generous and more inclusive. The point of interest here is PwC’s Phased Return to Work program, which the professional services firm says is the first of its kind. Offering this benefit up-front and actively marketing it to employees avoids the trap wherein new parents are afraid to ask for the flexibility they need out of fear of being seen as uncommitted. Closing that loophole was the motivation for Adobe’s returning employee flexibility program, which allows employees returning from at least three months of leave to work a non-traditional schedule for at least four months and requires all returnees to meet with their manager and HR to discuss this option.
Paying employees a full-time salary to work only part-time may sound absurd on its face, but we’ve seen a few other organizations experiment with shorter workdays in recent years. PwC’s policy will be worth watching, as it will provide another data point in how a limited workweek affects employee productivity, particularly among the highly stressed cohort of new parents.
The UK Working Lives report, billed by the CIPD as its first comprehensive survey of the British workforce based on its new Job Quality Index, was released on Wednesday. Surveying around 6,000 workers throughout the country, the report aims to produce a clearer and more objective picture of the quality of the jobs available to employees in the UK, “using seven critical dimensions which employees, employers and policy makers can measure and focus on to raise job quality and improve working lives”:
The health and value of the modern economy has long been gauged purely on quantitative measures such as gross domestic product, growth rates and productivity. A concerted focus on advancing the qualitative aspects of jobs and working lives will prove to be the next step forward.
Overall, the picture the report paints of the British workplace is positive for a majority of employees: Most said they were satisfied with their jobs, while 80 percent said they had good relationship with their managers and 91 percent said they had good relationships with their colleagues. Nearly 60 percent said they would choose to work even if they didn’t have to. Nonetheless, substantial numbers of respondents identified overwork, stress, and mental health concerns related to their jobs, pointing to shortcomings in the impact work is having on their quality of life.
Three in ten workers told the CIPD they suffered to some extent from “unmanageable” workloads, while 6 percent said they were regularly swamped with “far too much” work each day. While 30 percent reported feeling “full of energy” at work most of the time, 22 percent said they often felt “under excessive pressure,” another 22 percent said they felt “exhausted,” and 11 percent reported feeling “miserable.” And although 44 percent said work had a positive impact on their mental health overall, a full 25 percent said the opposite. In terms of their physical health, only 33 percent said they thought work had a positive impact versus 27 percent who said its effect was negative.
When it comes time to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones, there’s nothing quite like cake, but a new toolkit issued recently by Business in the Community and Public Health England is recommending that UK employers seek healthier alternatives for celebrations in the workplace. The Independent highlighted the toolkit’s recommendations earlier this month:
“Employers have a responsibility to provide safe workplaces that do not damage an employee’s health and environments that support healthier lifestyle choices,” the guide reads. “Healthy employees drive a healthy business.” … Instead of bringing in treats with a high sugar content, the guide proposes offering free fruit and vegetables around the workplace for people to take at their leisure.
Public Health England has calculated that the cost of an unhealthy workforce costs the UK taxpayer more than £60bn a year, which is why it is crucial that employers take better care of the health of the individuals in their workforce.
The organizations’ suggestions caused some controversy after some media outlets erroneously reported that Public Health England had banned cake in the workplace (it hasn’t). This is not the first time UK employers have been urged not to let them eat cake, as it were: Last year, the Faculty of Dental Surgery warned that the abundance of sweets in the workplace could be hurting productivity, along with employees’ physical and dental health. As People Management‘s Georgi Gyton reported at the time, office cultures that encourage unhealthy snacking could be having a negative impact on employee wellbeing at the precise moment employers are being called upon to do more to promote it: