Wellness programs have become relatively commonplace in North American companies. Many of these programs include one or more of the following:
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Health promotion and education
- Weight management and fitness
- Stress management
- Screenings and immunization
A good wellness program has been shown to bring a significant return on investment. However, it has been my experience that they tend to be under-utilized by the people that need them the most.
A health expert once confided to me that what wellness programs do best is help keep fit people fit. A 2011 study of Canadian workers, called the Sanofi-Aventis Healthcare Survey, shows this is indeed the case.
According to the study, the employees most likely to take part in wellness programs are those who already exercise four times or more per week. The people least likely to participate in wellness programs are those in the 35 to 44 age group – a prime demographic for chronic health conditions.
It may be that your wellness program is simply not engaging people with chronic illness. Why would that be? Here are some possible reasons:
Your wellness program lacks diversity
I recently shared a conference table with an executive from a large company. He was a physical fitness buff and stressed the concept of fitness within his business. He had instructed the company cafeteria to ensure that all the dishes they served included vegetables and whole grains. He also insisted that members of his inner circle go jogging during lunch hour and created an aura of physical competition among his employees, using peer pressure to make sure everyone participated. While I admired the tenacity of his beliefs, I could not help but think what a nightmare his workplace would be for someone like me.
Because of my chronic intestinal condition, eating high fiber items such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains would literally send me to the emergency room, and a high impact exercise like jogging would aggravate my arthritis to the point where I would barely be able to walk. In addition, having the peer pressure of living up to an ideal of healthy behavior that was actually dangerous for me would leave me feeling isolated, misunderstood and far from fully engaged.
Respecting diversity within your wellness program is a crucial part of engaging people with chronic health conditions. Everyone has different limits. If there is too much emphasis on one way to be healthy, people with chronic illness may stop paying attention to what the wellness program has to offer. They may also feel uncomfortable and stigmatized.
Workers are worried about their illness being revealed
Employees with chronic illness may not use company wellness programs for fear of their illness becoming known to others. Employee assistance programs, in particular, are treated with suspicion. Many workers do not believe the process is truly confidential.
Remember that these people may feel they are risking their jobs or their careers by admitting they have a health problem. The question they will ask themselves is: Are the resources I will get through my EAP worth the risk of me losing my job?
Unless you can convince employees they will not be punished for being sick, the resources that could help them will be under-utilized.
Having a management team that understands chronic illness issues can build the trust needed for employees to access these programs.
Your wellness program is not part of a healthy organization strategy
Employee health and wellness encompass so much more than a simple wellness program or EAP. Everything from vacation-time, workflow, and organizational culture plays a part. For instance, one of the best ways to engage employees with chronic health problems is through flexible work arrangements. Multiple studies have shown that workers with chronic illnesses rank flexible hours as the top resource that allows them to work more efficiently.
Just as healthy people are resilient and fit, you need the same qualities within your organization.