Workplace Wellness

by Liggy Webb

What is workplace wellness?

Increasingly, it is recognised that the workplace itself has a powerful affect on people’s health. When people are satisfied with their job, they are more productive and tend to be healthier. When employees feel that the environment at work is negative, they feel stressed. Stress has a large impact on employee mental and physical health and, in turn, on productivity.


Workplace Wellness

Workplace Wellness is essentially about creating a culture that supports individuals to be healthier, happier and truly fit to work.

Being unhappy at work can make you sick and being happy at work can make you healthier. This sounds like an unlikely claim at first, but it’s perfectly true.

Lancaster University and Manchester Business School performed a study in 2005 involving 250,000 employees. It found that low happiness at work is a risk factor for mental health problems, including emotional burn-out, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. The report warned that just a small drop in job satisfaction could lead to burnout of considerable clinical importance.

Mental stress symptoms, such as those found in the study, also increase the risk of physical health issues, including ulcers, heart problems and a weakened immune system.

The cost of absenteeism to the UK economy is now annually £100 billion, so it’s understandable that increasing emphasis is being put on the employer to encourage healthier work-based behaviours.

This has lead to the creation of workplace wellness programmes and, in some cases, even people with job titles that are totally focused on workplace wellness. The following advertised job description is a good summary of the kinds of activities that go into a workplace wellness programme.

Advertised wellness job description

Under the general direction of the Senior Director of Global Benefits, the Wellness Program Manager provides leadership to all US [company] locations for wellness and disease management programs, and directs the [company’s] policies and programs in this area, including development of new initiatives and directives related to health awareness, prevention, improvement and maintenance to meet the strategic healthcare objectives at [company]. This responsibility includes the design, development, implementation and coordination of activities and programs relating to employee health promotion; oversight and direction of an agenda focused on improving [company’s] attainment of its workplace wellness objectives; evaluating the effectiveness of the [company’s] efforts in these areas, and coordinating the collection and analysis of data to evaluate program effectiveness.

Clearly, any programme designed to improve workplace wellness will need to consider most areas of organisational life, including

  • Individual wellness
  • Managerial attitudes
  • Organisational culture
  • Work environment
  • Health facilities
  • Policies and procedures
  • Health and safety

To do it properly is not a trivial undertaking, but the business reasons for doing so are compelling.

Wellness approaches

Historically, employee health has fallen under the health and safety banner and has been restricted to occupational health-related interventions for injuries or illnesses acquired while at work. Recent initiatives have begun to challenge this view, advocating an expansion of health and safety programmes to encompass a more holistic approach to wellness.

This approach calls for employers to be proactive rather than reactive to employee health issues, focusing on preventative measures to avoid injuries and illnesses, rather than on the strictly rehabilitative measures in place once an event has occurred. This critical shift in thinking has also led employers to expand the concept of employee health beyond conditions acquired at work to any condition which could potentially impact on employee performance.

This trend incorporates a wider spectrum of promotion interventions outside the traditional health remit, such as work/life balance initiatives, which are believed to contribute to greater employee wellbeing.

Based on these findings, a conceptual model for wellness includes three main types of intervention:

  1. Health and safety: these interventions are driven by government policy initiatives and shaped by statutory requirements (for more, see the topic on Health and Safety)
  2. Management of ill health: these interventions focus predominantly on reactive interventions and include occupational health, rehabilitation, long-term disability management, return-to-work schemes and absence management programmes (for more, see the topics on Attendance Management, Disability and Psychological Health at Work)
  3. Prevention and promotion: there is a range of interventions that could fall under the prevention and promotion banner, including health promotion activities, work/life balance, stress management, time management schemes and primary care management.

As the first two are covered elsewhere in this resource, the focus of this topic is on the third element, but the holistic approach involves addressing all aspects of wellbeing, including physical, social, mental and environmental health.