Health and wellness programs have been a staple of employee benefit packages for years.

We’ve come to expect them when we go through an employee orientation. Some of us use them; many of us don’t. We appreciate the gesture, but then more often than not we move on. 

That’s exactly the problem, according to Terry Karjalainen, PhD, MPA, RN, Lead Faculty with the Master of Health Administration degree program at Capella University. We have been conditioned to think of health and wellness as simply another line item in a raft of employee benefits. A nice option, but nothing mission critical. Karjalainen argues that needs to change and that health and wellness must be elevated to the level of a strategic business imperative.

Why? In addition to being the right thing to do, supporting the health and wellness of workers is tied to employee recruitment, retainment, productivity, and ultimately the bottom line. Health care costs are soaring, and employers continue to take the brunt of it.

“That trend can’t continue,” Karjalainen says. “Health care costs have become an enormous burden for organizations of all sizes. These costs represent a mortal threat to their ability to survive. We have to stop thinking about investing in health and wellness as just a nicety. It’s a necessity.”

Don’t Just Think About Wellness – Think About Dollars

For health and wellness to be treated as a business imperative, it will take a fundamental mind shift from all of us, from the CEO down to entry-level workers. At the root of that mind shift is a closer look at the impact to organizations when employees are NOT well.

“Typically, when an employee is out sick or not feeling well, we commiserate with them, tell them to get better soon, but then we just get back to work,” Karjalainen says. “We need to go way beyond just feeling bad for them and wishing them well. We need to quantify the costs associated with absenteeism. We need to quantify the costs for decreased productivity when employees are working but unwell. When organizations really start doing that, it’s very much an eye-opening experience. Those numbers can be sizeable, and suddenly proactively investing in the health and wellness of employees takes on increased importance.”

Beware the Contagion Effect

Now, consider everyone who has to work with those employees who are chronically absent because of health reasons, or who may be at work but are operating far below their capacity and risking the health of their colleagues because they are unwell. What does that do to the broader team’s productivity? What does it do to morale? How does it affect employee satisfaction when additional work is consistently shifted to employees who are healthy?

“If you are working as a team—and the vast majority of us are—it’s not hard to see the adverse impact when people in the group are not able to fully contribute because of health reasons,” Karjalainen says. “Not many departments work in a vacuum. When one, or sometimes many, employees are out of commission, it negatively affects the whole team. It affects not only productivity, but also the appetite for other employees to stay with the organization.”

It Won’t Get Better Until We Make It Better

Unfortunately, things are likely to get worse before they get better. Health care costs continue to rise for employers and employees alike. Operating according to the status quo when it comes to health and wellness is apt to result in many organizations treading water at best in combatting those costs. Others are likely to sink.

“We simply have to change our organizations’ cultures to being rooted in wellness. The health and wellness of employees must be a top priority that is tracked and measured with the same focus that other key business drivers receive,” Karjalainen says. “It has to be discussed in the C-suite in the same way other business critical issues are discussed. If we don’t do that, we’ll never keep up, and everyone will have to pay more and more.”

Examples of workplace health and wellness program components and strategies include:

  • Health education classes
  • Access to local fitness facilities
  • Company policies that promote healthy behaviors such as a tobacco-free campus policy
  • Employee health insurance coverage for appropriate preventive screenings
  • A healthy work environment created through actions such as making healthy foods available and accessible through vending machines or cafeterias
  • A work environment free of recognized health and safety threats

“It’s important to remember that health and wellness is not just an HR benefit,” Karjalainen concludes. “It’s core to business success and needs to be measured as such—the same way we have measured safety. Many in health promotion have been saying this for years, and it will continue to be more and more important as the years go on. There is no magic pill to transform health and wellness into a business imperative of course, but we need to continue to push for this kind of engagement. It’s not going to just happen. We need to make it happen. Organizations have an opportunity to positively affect the larger population through the impact they make on their employee populations.”

Capella University’s degrees in health care administration help health care professionals develop the critical thinking skills needed to reimagine employee health and wellness programs.