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Employee wellness programs: Why is it so important, yet sidelined?

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Keywords: Employee well-being, wellness, health, Productivity, Staff turnover, wellness programs.


What are Employee Wellness programs?

“Sufficient sleep, exercise, healthy food, friendship, and peace of mind are necessities, not luxuries.” ~Mark Halperin

Employee wellness programs are a set of organized activities and systematic interventions whose primary purposes are to provide health education, identify modifiable health risks, influence health behavior changes and facilitate a happy life at the workplace and beyond. (Ronoh Chepkemoi Winnie, 2011) The most popular wellness programs are smoking cessation (91%), physical activities (86%), and weight management (79%) (Fidelity, 2017). These programs have been proven to increase employee’s loyalty to organizations and decrease absenteeism and high turnover (Carrel, 1995).

70% of employees enrolled in wellness programs have reported higher job satisfaction than those not enrolled in the companies’ program (Aflac, 2019). As reported in the Harvard business review (Herzlinger and Schwartz, 1985 p.69), Corporate expenses for health care are rising at such a high rate that, if unchecked, in eight years it will eliminate all profits for the average fortune 500 company and the larger 250 non industrials. In 1985, United States companies paid employee health insurance premiums of more than $87 billion, an amount greater than the total dividends paid that year to shareholders (Wagel 1989). Thus, attention came to be given to the prevention approach to employee healthcare cost control. This approach runs on the premise that if employees’ good health is maintained, they will require less medical care in the long run.

The total budget for wellbeing programs increased by about 22%, reaching an average of $6 million in 2021, up from the average budget of $4.9 million reported in 2020. Among large employers (20,000-plus employees), the average budget earmarked for wellbeing programs increased from $100,000 to $10.5 million in 2020. The average budget per employee increased to $238 in 2021, slightly higher than the $230 per employee in 2020. (Fidelity Investments/Business Group on Health.)

In a study to research on The Impact of the Highmark Employee Wellness Programs on 4-Year Healthcare Costs, it was found that Multivariate models estimated health care expenses per person per year as $176 lower for participants. Inpatient expenses were lower by $182. Four-year savings of $1,335,524 compared with program expenses of $808,403 yielded an ROI (return of investment) of $1.65 for every dollar spent on the program. (Journal of occupational and environmental medicine 2008).

Why are employee wellness programs failing?

A recent study by researchers at RAND Corp reported that workplace wellness programs show little impact on participant weight loss, and no impact on cholesterol control. Additional studies have shown that many wellness programs do nothing to improve benefits costs – and may actually increase the costs by encouraging more doctor visits. Here are the reasons companies are failing at their employee wellness programs.

  1. These programs treat wellness as a lifestyle that employees must be cajoled into adopting, extending the workplace not just into the home but into the bodies of workers, and entrenching the view that one belongs to one’s workplace, which goes against the human capital theory and neoliberal models of subjectivity that emphasize personal control and responsibility. (Hull, G., Pasquale, F. 2018)

  2. Their selective endorsement of health programs (many scientifically unsupported) produce a social truth of wellness framed as fitness for work. (Hull, G., Pasquale, F. 2018)

  3. Lack of support and attitude of top management- the head of human resource function is overwhelmed due to the fact that he is the only person responsible for the success of these programs and there is a need for more support from top management and other members of staff. (Ronoh Chepkemoi Winnie, 2011)

  4. Investing wellness dollars in the wrong place- Companies have been spending money in keeping the already healthy, healthy. While this is also of importance, it is necessary to focus on employees who actually need help, in order to improve the overall health condition of the workplace.

  5. Staff turnover- Staff turnover is a major threat to competing organizations and can negatively influence programs that have been put in place to assist and develop employees. Bennett et al (1994) observes that employee wellness programs are more likely to be found in organizations with low turnover, since it makes sense to invest in the programs if the employees stay long enough to return the investment the organization has made.

  6. Legal reasons- Klein (2009) states that employee wellness programs can run afoul of state laws in terms of reasonable accommodation, privacy, confidentiality of personal health information, and protection of off-duty conduct. Employers should have their legal counsel review a wellness program before it's presented to employees.

  7. According to Gibbs (1983), the availability of adequate funds is yet a major factor that affects the success of wellness programs. He suggests that the top -level management must be supportive and set aside dedicated-funds in the annual budget for this.

Clearly, there is a positive connection between employee satisfaction/ well-being and the performance of the company. Therefore, all employers need to put in an effort and take care of all the odds in order to actually benefit the employees and the business as Companies with highly effective health and wellness plans are 40% more likely to report better financial performance than low-effectiveness companies (Sun Life, 2012). It is also important to note that, About 77% of employees think that workplace wellness programs positively impact the company culture (Forbes, 2013) , which is the most significant aspect of an organisation and its reputation.

How many years do you think all companies will take to comprehend these benefits with their scientific aspects?


About the author

Hi! I am C G Abilasha, I am doing my triple major in Psychology, English literature and journalism from Mount Carmel college, Bangalore. I love all things related to the mind and how it works and how we can use and change it. But, Do I know any psychology jokes, you ask? I am A-Freud not. I’m interested in pursuing I/O psychology in the future. In my free time, you will find me playing with my dog and reading books.




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