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Working well – Why creating a culture of wellness is great for your bottom line

Being a responsible employer used to require a fairly short checklist: regular salary cheques, a safe working environment – and beds if you worked in a brewery. But the checklist is growing, and companies are increasingly expected to play a more holistic role in the health and wellbeing of their employees.

Definitions of workplace wellness or wellbeing vary, but a good start is the World Health Organisation’s publication “Healthy workplaces model for action”, which says a healthy workplace is “one in which workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and wellbeing of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace”.

Phew. In simple terms, the WHO framework extends an employer’s responsibilities beyond health and safety concerns in the physical work environment to what is known as the “psychosocial work environment”.

This could mean a boss making sure their staff aren’t bored or unappreciated, or a company working to minimise the stress caused by tension between colleagues. It could involve understanding the impact on a worker of a public dressing-down, or providing programmes helping staff lead healthy lifestyles.

It’s a weighty list to add to other annual company goals – like making money. Still, the “Wellness in the Workplace” survey released by BusinessNZ in 2013 found nine out of ten enterprises considered improving employee wellbeing as either desirable or a priority. A quarter of companies named it top priority.

The survey also found 61% of New Zealand companies with more than 100 employees had a wellness programme in place.

Others may come to the party after the new Health and Safety at Work Act (replacing the Health and Safety in Employment Act) comes into force from April 2015. While the emphasis is on injury prevention. ACC spokesperson Stephanie Melville says a key focus of the legislation is the need for employers “to take an active role” in the health and safety of their staff.

Achieve Wellness director (and Health and Productivity Institute of NZ chair) Kelly Davis Martin says the increase in companies looking to implement programmes is positive, but she would like to see a shift to more comprehensive wellness programmes.

“I’m cautious that some employers are just renaming occupational health and safety as a wellbeing programme. Health and safety is a good place to start, but it is not wellness; we need to make sure these programmes are worthwhile and contribute to real change.”

Louise Schofield, co-founder of corporate wellness company Vitality Works, says there has been a notable increase in wellbeing programmes since her business launched ten years ago and awareness has grown markedly.

“Most big employers have a wellness programme of some sort; even four or five years ago that wasn’t the case.” She estimates more than 400,000 people have been involved in one or other of her company’s programmes.

ACC is a Vitality Works’ client and recently implemented a wellness programme, kicking off with 2000 staff participating in the 10,000 Steps Challenge, where teams compete over how far they walk each week. Stephanie Melville says there was no single driver behind the programme but a recognition that it is an essential part of keeping employees healthy.

“Recent data from the Productivity Commission supports that, saying that while Kiwis work as hard, or harder, than many other countries in the OECD, we’re actually less productive. This means that if we don’t want to continue to not only lag, but actually fall, behind as a global economy, we need to work smarter, not harder. Keeping our employees safe and healthy is a critical success factor in New Zealand’s ability to compete on the world stage.”

Schofield says companies come to Vitality Works with a range of desired outcomes, including helping their staff become healthier and less stressed. But it is also about being a better employer – and being seen to be one.

“They’re definitely saying they want to improve the health of their workforce. But more and more, especially for our larger corporates, they want to be seen as an employer of choice; they want to be seen as caring for their employees. They see the wellbeing programmes as an employee benefit.

“For around $100 per employee per year you can put in place an effective wellbeing programme that has some real, tangible benefits for your employees,” says Schofield.

“If you imagine giving staff a $100 pay rise they are probably going to be underwhelmed. In contrast, $100 spent on helping you lose weight, feel healthier and happier has a high perceived benefit for an employee.”

Phone company 2degrees Mobile rolled out its wellbeing programme in February 2013. Manager Sarah Friis says the company was looking to increase staff engagement and show employees they were valued. “I think organisations should care about the wellbeing of their people and at that pointwe weren’t doing anything that obviously demonstrated that care. That was the main reason, so that our people would feel that the organisation really cared about them and not just their health, but everything.”

The company has close to 800 employees and initially established its own programme with the help of eight volunteer “wellness champions” from around the business. A range of initiatives were grouped under the programme, including entering a Round the Bays team, in-house step challenges run across the company’s major centres in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and free flu jabs.

This year 2degrees has brought Vitality Works on board, but Friis says the internal advocates are still vital to keep the energy going and give feedback on what is working and what needs to be tweaked.

It now has an online portal – the 2degrees wellness hub – which allows employees to watch health webinars, read articles on monthly themed health topics and keep up-to-date on company wellness events and competitions.

The social factor

Two years in, Friis says one of the most obvious benefits is bringing people together, whether it is to exercise or share a healthy lunch.

“The biggest challenge for a lot of organisations, especially big organisations, is that they get quite siloed; this brings different teams and different people together.”

A more measurable benefit was captured in the 2degrees annual engagement survey. Since establishing its wellness programme, the company has seen a 6.7% increase in the staff response to “This organisation cares about the wellbeing of its people”, Friis says.

“It is well recognised that increased engagement leads to increased profitability for a business and we know we have increased employee engagement for 2degrees.”

Health check

International studies suggest reduced absenteeism is another potential benefit from wellness programmes – an attractive possibility given the median total cost for each absent employee in 2012 was $837, according to BusinessNZ’s Wellness in the Workplace survey. The total cost across the economy was $1.26b.

Non-work-related illness was identified as the leading driver of illness, something health and wellness programmes would seem primed to address. (And engagement has been shown to address both absenteeism, and presenteeism – when staff show up but don’t get much done.) Sovereign Insurance ramped up an existing company wellness programme just over a year ago under its brand “Life. Take charge”.

CEO Symon Brewis-Weston says the new focus is on helping as many of the company’s 750 staff as possible take ownership of their own health. Sovereign’s mantra as a leading New Zealand life and health insurance company is encouraging healthy New Zealanders, Brewis- Weston says, so it was critical the company was doing what it could to keep its own staff well.

“If you are going to ask customers to start thinking about how to look after themselves, you need to look internally first.” Brewis-Weston, who started at Sovereign in early 2013, says existing programmes weren’t reaching enough staff. “Maybe 80% had flu jabs, and some took counselling. But if we wanted more people engaging, we needed to create activities that generated people participation.”As well as offering financial support for staff sports teams, and discounts on anything from gym memberships to dental treatment, the company has quarterly wellbeing challenges, like the “SHIFT” programme (a team-based walking challenge) and the “Sugar Crash” challenge (from Synergy Health) where staff cut down on sugar and got tips on how to beat cravings. About 50% of staff took part, Brewis-Weston says.

And the company is encouraging as many employees as possible to enter the newlysponsored nationwide Sovereign Tri Series. It is also offering $25,000 (to a charity of its choice) to the company which gets the biggest percentage of its workforce off their butts and into a tri team.

Brewis-Weston estimates Sovereign has spent $1 million (“maybe more”) on internal and external wellness messages and programmes, but it’s still too early to tell what the benefits are. However, staff engagement surveys are showing positive upward trends, he says.


“There are signs of a lot more activity and innovation going on. And certainly if people are feeling happier, they are going to be more engaged. And if they are getting to know each other through activities, there is going to be more working across teams and that will bring business gains.”

Poor pay off?

Interestingly, some international research – most from the US, where wellness programmes are often tied in with health insurance costs and the industry is worth around $6 billion a year – suggests the health and productivity pay-offs for workplace wellness initiatives aren’t always as impressive as you might think.

Over the course of three years, the (Congressionally mandated) RAND Employer Survey found participants in the wellness programmes that were evaluated lost an average of less than half a kilogram a year. There were negligible reductions in cholesterol and in the cost or use of hospital care. Measurable cost savings came in at around US$2.40 for the first year and US$3.50 after five years for employees that took part.

US economists and health experts who have studied the findings suggest it is because in the short to medium term there is no reduction in medical appointments and treatments and there may be an increase because previously undiagnosed conditions such as hypertension or diabetes are identified in employees. In the long-term, these interventions could ward offmajor medical events such as a heart attack – but for now they eat into the ROI.

Meanwhile, US book Surviving Workplace Wellness, suggests that done badly, corporate programmes waste money, alienate employees (who don’t appreciate the management-turnednanny state attitude to their obesity, smoking or lack of fitness) and can subject people to unnecessary and intrusive tests.

AUT Professor Tim Bentley, co-director of the Work Research Institute, says companies need to understand that health and fitness programmes are just one element that contributes to employee wellbeing.

“Good leadership and effective work organisation, providing interesting, stimulating and varied work, a supportive work culture and environment, and a balance between effort and rest help create a healthy work environment. “If we are pushing people too hard, offering fruit or a gym membership, for example, is not going to address these antecedents of psychological and physical health problems.”

Creating Healthy Organisations author Graham Lowe, who spoke at the 2013 Health Promotion Agency’s Creating Wellbeing at Work conference, says the key investment companies need to make isn’t financial – it’s about an on-going focus on health and wellness – not sporadic initiatives. “What is needed is time, commitment and follow through.”

Lowe’s ingredients are respect and fairness, two-way communication, autonomy and input for employees, adequate resources, supportive supervisors, challenging work, recognition and rewards, and a safe and healthy environment.

Return on investment

What about ROI for New Zealand wellness programmes? Grunty data is hard to come by. One large Auckland-based organisation (which didn’t want to put its name to the figures) carried out health risk assessments on its staff before implementing a wellness strategy, and calculated a ROI of $2.10 for every $1 spent. Health gains included a decrease in the number of employees with high total cholesterol from 35% to 27%, and those presenting with high blood pressure from 23% to 13%.

Sounds positive, except the organisation was at pains to point out that the level of engagement with the health check is less than 50% of staff; moreover, year on year the number of employees repeating the check is around 60% and – critically, perhaps – management “don’t know how many of those engaging in the health checks are also engaging in the wellness programmes”. The ROI was also calculated by their wellness provider and used an “estimated ROI based on international research”.

Wellness providers calculating the ROI on programmes they facilitate is another criticism levelled at the burgeoning US workplace wellness industry.

Schofield says the value is there but it is hard to document given the number of companies that don’t carry out baseline assessments before they begin. She says companies need to think about an assessment before launching a wellness programme – not least because your chief financial officer will want to know what he is getting for his money.

Another obstacle, Schofield says, is the fact the “worried well” are the first to sign up to wellbeing programmes – and they are probably already doing the right things, meaning there are limited opportunities for health gains.

“That’s why workplaces need to focus on assessing the health of their employees and reaching those people that really need help.”

In the absence of ROI figures to lure employers to implement wellness initiatives, the approach in New Zealand seems to be to quote the grim alternative. A sort of carrot-stick combo outlining what you stand to lose and the assumed flipside.

A guide to promoting health and wellness in the workplace put out by Wellington Regional Public Health quotes Australian research showing healthy employees are nearly three times more productive than unhealthy ones.

The guide also quotes a report from the World Economic Forum stating that chronic disease is the prime cause of lost work time in the working age population and a straightforward (if dated) statement from the Department of Sport and Recreation that the “cost of poor health to organisations is enough to justify implementing a workplace health and wellness programme”.

It’s an argument that makes sense, even if the data is yet to back it up. Schofield calls it “the science of the bleeding obvious”.

“If you turn up to work and you’ve had a poor night’s sleep, KFC for dinner and a few too many wines the night before then you are less productive the next day. A good wellbeing programme helps employees by making the healthier choice an easier choice.”

Sanitarium: A culture of wellness

Measurable outcomes, welldeveloped systems and a diverse range of programmes helped Sanitarium net a joint win at the last New Zealand Workplace Wellness Awards. Experience might have helped with the win too – Sanitarium has had a wellness programme in place for 10 years.

The origins of the programme began with the company’s nutrition team running a “lifestyle employee assistance programme” focused on basic healthy living messages (keep active, drink plenty of water etc).

These days the company’s list of health events and initiatives is long and varied – something to suit each of the company’s 392 staff, according to Sanitarium people and culture manager Carol O’Brien.

Initiatives include health checks, flu vaccinations,an annual $100 BetterU subsidy that staff can spend on things like running shoes, Round the Bays entries, sports equipment, health consultations, cooking classes, exercise programmes and weight management sessions.

An onsite gym – which has been credited with helping a number of staff lose weight – was also established to make it easier for shift workers to build exercise into their lives.

“We pride ourselves on being more than a food company, we’re a health and wellbeing company and we can’t be a health and wellbeing company if we’re not living that wherever possible,” O’Brien says.

She says the initiatives and the BetterU subsidy are a major contributor to the Sanitarium brand, and its reputation as a good employer.“Developing a strong company culture is a fundamental strategy and these initiatives are part of that. We carry out exit interviews when staff leave and it comes out again and again how much they really value the BetterU programme.”

Five years ago, Sanitarium set up a new Australian division called Cultivate to take its wellbeing learnings out to other companies – and in 2013 they acquired New Zealand-based Vitality Works.

While O’Brien says Sanitarium’s investment in employee wellbeing is not about ROI, she says there are real benefits for the business including “very low absenteeism and sick leave, and low turnover.

“From an HR perspective I believe it delivers huge value for the business and for our employees.”

Review overview