The business world has come a long way since 1843 when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, had to plead for coal to heat his office and a day to spend Christmas with his family. Instead of considering his employee’s health, Scrooge’s focus was on the bottom line, until he was visited by those ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, which set him on an altruistic path.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, employee health was more the result of government legislation and union negotiations than it was altruism on the part of owners, although there were some who recognized the economic benefits of such an approach.
Until 1926, workers, especially those in the manufacturing and industrial sectors, routinely worked 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes six days a week. But that year, the Ford Motor Company made a groundbreaking change by switching to a five-day, 40-hour work week with no reduction in wages, which became the standard in North America.
Henry Ford’s son Edsel seemed to have made the change purely for the wellbeing of company employees when he told the New York Times that the Ford Company had always sought to promote an ideal home life for its employees, and to do that, every man should have more time to spend with his family. Henry Ford’s rationale was pragmatic, however, as he told Work Week in 1926: “Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing market because people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.”
Regardless of the motive, the 40-hour work week was indeed a “win-win” for both employees and business owners, becoming the norm until the digital age. More recently, the gig economy and the pandemic have radically changed how we work.
Investment in wellness makes good business sense
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, concepts of wellness and preventative medicine were gaining traction. Jim Burke, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, believing that unhealthy behaviours—smoking, overeating and alcohol abuse—were responsible for a large amount of the company’s health care costs, piloted a wellness program, Live for Life®. His rationale was that not only would the program improve the health of employees, it also would reduce the company’s health care costs, and since healthy employees are more productive, it would benefit the company’s profit margin.
Just as Ford’s 40-hour work week became a North American standard, so did corporate wellness. In fact it became so mainstream that in 1989, just eleven years after Burke piloted Live for Life®, the National Association for Health and Fitness, a non-profit association, declared May Global Employee Health and Fitness Month as part of an award-winning worksite health promotion program.
Over the next decades, companies developed their own wellness programs which, according to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), “typically seek to raise awareness, provide education and offer incentives that encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyles,” and which by 2017 were offered by 54 percent of North American employers.
So popular did the “wellness movement” become that it resulted in a distinct niche industry of its own, with third party service providers such as Good Life Fitness, Well Certified, Total Wellness / Health and a plethora of others contracted by businesses to provide programming. These programs include a variety of services, products and platforms, including health screening assessments, diagnostic testing, in-house gyms or subsidized memberships at fitness clubs or exercise classes, wearable fitness trackers, healthy food menus in company cafeterias, and off-site counselling services.
Now there is evidence to suggest wellness programs are indeed a factor in helping businesses to do well. One study reported in the Harvard Business Review found that “for every dollar invested in wellness, companies average a return of $2.71 by way of increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, and reduced healthcare costs.”
An analysis by Sun Life Financial showed that, “companies with an effective wellness program reduced costs and experienced financial gains. These include 11 percent higher revenue per employee; 1.8 fewer absentee days, per employee, per year; 28 percent higher shareholder returns. For every dollar spent on wellness programs, medical costs fell by $3.27 and absenteeism costs fell by $2.73.”
A holistic approach to workplace wellness
Since 1978 and the launch of Johnson and Johnson’s Live for Life®, which targeted specific unhealthy behaviours of employees, the concept of workplace wellness has matured and broadened in scope as employers realize wellness programs are only one part of the overall company culture.
As noted by the Global Wellness Institute, there’s a growing recognition that a compartmentalized, programmatic approach to employee health and wellbeing does not address all the challenges employees are dealing with such as stress, burnout, work-life balance, and mental health. Rather than being caused by their own (supposed) bad habits of poor nutritional choices and lack of exercise, the challenges they face may result from a toxic company culture, one where diversity, equity, and inclusion are not respected, where contributions go unrecognized, where there’s little opportunity for advancement, or where work schedules remain inflexible.
Technology, which has revolutionized how businesses operate, has also created issues for employees, who may be expected to respond immediately to electronic communications no matter the time of day or night, spelling the end of Ford’s 40-hour work week.
Formerly, owners and managers were concerned about loss of productivity resulting from employees’ health choices which they targeted through wellness programs. Now, instead, they’re dealing with the post-pandemic phenomenon of ‘quiet quitting,’ which refers to the behaviour of employees who no longer find meaning in their work and question its validity.
A Gallup survey conducted in 2022 suggested that at least half of the U.S. workforce now consists of quiet quitters, which mirrors Microsoft’s findings. Between July and August of 2022, it surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries and found that nearly 50 percent of employees and 53 percent of managers report feeling burnt out at work. That same year, Bloomberg reported that, “even industries which boasted highly engaged workers are seeing an increase in ‘quiet quitting’—in the finance sector, eight percent fewer employees are willing to give it their all.”
In recognition of these disturbing trends, GBI notes that, “some employers are beginning to adopt a more holistic approach that encompasses company culture, hierarchy, leadership style, workflow, and the built environment.”
They’re also surveying employees to find out what they want, and it turns out that it’s not necessarily a fitness / exercise room or healthy snacks which, while good things, are simply not enough. While some employees may feel uncomfortable answering surveys, concerned their answers may not be as anonymous as promised, there’s enough data compiled by professional surveyors to act as a guide to understanding what employees not only want, but need, if they are to remain productive, and what businesses need to know if they want to remain in business.
According to the first quarter report from Inspirus, which pulled together findings from Gallup, McKinsey and other surveyors as well as from academic research, “The most desirable cultural components today are: a workplace environment where employees feel they belong and are accepted and valued for who they are; have the resources and support they need to be engaged; feel acknowledged for their contributions and accomplishments, and can access opportunities for career advancement.”
Additionally, McKinsey’s survey indicated that managers often don’t understand why workers quit. Their report suggests that employers don’t really listen to workers, and that they tend to rate ‘transactional’ factors such as pay more highly, while neglecting the ‘relational’ elements, the things employees say matter most if they are to be fully engaged. But those intangibles—the feelings of being valued by managers and the organization, a sense of belonging, a culture of trust among teammates—are difficult to achieve without direct involvement from CEOs willing to be active listeners and empower employees.
In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Christopher Littlefield suggests a simple but effective way to recognize employees. He describes reflective recognition “as an inquiry-based approach, where one individual or group is invited to reflect and share what they are working on, or are proud of, and why.” He says the invitation to share doesn’t have to be in a formal meeting; in fact, it might be even better in a more casual setting. The conversation can be a little awkward at first, as employees may be suspicious, but when they receive positive feedback, “it will build a culture where good work is recognized and employees feel validated.”
The future of work and wellness
Much of the literature we surveyed about wellness had an implied focus on the on-site work model, but that model no longer reflects reality, as the number of employees continuing to work remotely or in a hybrid model is increasing. An AT&T study found the hybrid work model is expected to grow from 42 percent in 2021 to 81 percent in 2024 and that shift will have an impact on how leaders and workers interact and how wellness will be affected.
In a recent Forbes article, Luciana Paulise says that despite concerns by CEOs about their employees’ productivity, they are discovering that remote workers can sometimes be more productive, as some of the stressors associated with the workplace, such as interruptions, office politics, commutes, and uncomfortable workspaces—which affect both wellness and productivity—have been removed.
She does, however, echo what other surveys and researchers are concluding, which is that open communication between leaders and employees that maintains a culture of wellness remains of vital importance. “Having more frequent one-on-one conversations to understand employees’ needs and providing support in prioritizing their workload are essential. These actions can help prevent burnout, overwork, and disengagement.”
There is a group that seems to be largely left out of the wellness conversation, however: workers in the gig economy, whose numbers have grown steadily since the economic downturn of 2008. According to the most recent statistics available, there were at least 59 million gig-work employees in the U.S., accounting for nine percent of the workforce, and 1.7 million in Canada, accounting for ten percent. They include both on-site and remote workers in a variety of sectors who may work occasionally, part-time, or full-time as freelance or contract employees, and who often work for more than one employer to earn a living wage.
The one thing they have in common is that they have few or no benefits, even though they contribute to the success of the businesses for which they work. Maybe it’s time for businesses to recognize them and consider making room for them under the wellness umbrella.
While we’ve come a long way from Dickens’ depiction of employee working conditions, workplace health and wellness merit continued study and development. Taking the time to listen to employees and to nurture a supportive, secure, positive environment is worth the investment.