Friends with Benefactors!

Workplace wellness programs are a form of philanthropy. After all, philanthropy is defined as the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people. Workplace wellness can be defined as the promotion of life-improving activities for a group of people.

The traditional way management has viewed workplace wellness programs is to see it as an expense; something that is an addition to an employee’s benefits package. The employer hopes that their workforce will be healthier and, therefore, more productive, but in order to view workplace wellness programs as philanthropic, it is necessary to break up the traditional wellness paradigm and reassemble it so that it can be viewed from a more positive perspective.

From the employer or the business owners’ perspective, viewing wellness program expenses as an exercise in philanthropy makes the expenditure much more palatable. Any business owner would love to see a business expense also have a positive influence on the human condition.

A company-sponsored tobacco cessation program can be viewed as a program to help prevent cancer and a variety of associated diseases.

A stress-relieving program helps people get over anxieties that could be limiting them as productive members of society, not to mention the improvements that might be seen in terms of productivity in the workplace.
A dieting program can help employees learn better nutritional lessons that can be passed on to their children by having them raised in an environment where a healthy diet is part of their normal everyday lives.

An exercise promotion program helps participants feel better about themselves over time as their bodies respond to improved fitness. This has the added benefit of helping workers stay fresh and focused throughout the day.

A workplace wellness program can take many different forms. It is worth noting that there is no one system that works the best due to the fact that not all groups of workers (and their families) have the same needs for wellness services. Program designers need to be able to flexibly adapt their programs to the demographics and needs of the employee population. Aspects common to most wellness programs are diet, exercise, habits and stress control. More successful programs have some sort of mechanism for measuring the success of a given program.

Critics of workplace wellness programs, like authors Al Lewis and Vikram Khanna, point to the lack of credible data supporting actual positive return on investment for these programs. I agree with their viewpoint that few wellness programs have significant positive results yielding any meaningful return on investment, but not because wellness programs are doomed to failure. The problem with most programs is in the lack of full participation in these programs. Until a program exceeds over an 80% participation rate, it is likely to miss those who are most in need of a program.

A successful workplace wellness program:
• Needs to gain buy-in from both upper management and employees
• Is future-oriented and takes a long-term view of success
• Reevaluates areas of concern to gauge appropriate future program emphasis
• Includes spouses and children of employees
• Takes into account life balance and stress
• Provides the most cost-effective services available
• Encourages the practice of alternative practices prior to resorting to major medical services

In a recent online discussion, a participant made the following statement that sums up much of the reason for the dispute over ROI in wellness programs:

“Except for the USA, where cost savings & ROI, are an essential component for a successful corporate wellness program, this is not so in many other countries, where health improvement, & return on value, is more important than ROI. However in my book, ROI is usually the inevitable outcome of a good program, but in case there is health improvement, but no tangible financial benefit, the program may still qualify as being successful.” Adrian Kennedy, Chief Wellness Officer at Arabian Wellness & Lifestyle Management, LLC

The key takeaway is that while the promised economic benefits may not be as large as one hopes, the effort to improve the lot of people is well worth the time, money and sweat equity…isn’t that the true essence of philanthropy?

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