The Cost and Impact of Workplace Health Programs

From October 16-18, 2013, the Health Work and Wellness Conference in Halifax provided an occasion to continue the search for cost-effective approaches to supporting workplace health.

On a grand scale, the case is compelling with convincing links demonstrated between employees’ experience of worklife and their reports of well-being and health. When people overextend themselves at work or encounter unnecessary distress their fulfilment and well-being decrease. A workplace that promotes mental and physical health is more productive and avoids a range of burdensome costs associated with sick leave, disability, and indifferent performance.

However, translating these broad trends into specific practices in workplaces is tough. Even when employers accept the argument’s validity, they may hesitate to invest in workplace health programs. What makes sense in general may not translate into action.

Workplace health program hesitations:

  1. Measurement. A perennial challenge for stress or illness prevention is measuring a program’s impact. It is relatively easy to measure whether an illness has gone away. It is much more difficult to determine that an illness was avoided. Assessing the impact of prevention initiatives requires having a credible baseline against which to gauge one’s current performance. Even with evidence of a reduction in sick leave costs, it remains difficult to attribute that reduction to the program rather than to other factors at play at the time. Research projects that establish such links operate on a larger scale than do most organizations.
  2. Participation. For the most part participation in employee wellness programs is voluntary. That condition makes sense on many points. However, it often means that people who could benefit most from a program are less likely to attend. People who are very unfit may feel embarrassed to attend a fitness program with work colleagues. People under extreme time pressure are reluctant to make time for time management. People who prefer a clear boundary between work and personal life may avoid any work activities outside of their job descriptions. Universal participation is not a reasonable expectation.
  3. Time Frame. Prevention works over the long run but organizational budgets operate over the short run. A manager may accept that an intensive program may have a valuable impact over the next few years, but must justify the expense of the program within the current year’s budget. The investment will pay off, but the payoff will be too late.

Against this backdrop remains the fact that very few workplace health programs have be rigorously evaluated against control groups or followed up. A program that feels good today may not make much difference in the long run.

It is crucial in this context for leaders to take a research perspective towards workplace health. Evidence is needed to inform decisions and to evaluate the return on investment. The general picture looks convincing, but the decisions are made locally.

What are your ideas for evaluating workplace health programs?

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