Workplace wellness programs: What are they really good for?

Workplace wellbeing is not limited to physical health

Workplace wellbeing is not limited to physical health Photo: Getty

Wellness programs are becoming common in Australian workplaces – and for good reason.

The average adult spends one-third of their life at work, so it makes sense to target health promotion strategies at the workplace.

Increasingly, governments and the public are recognising the economic and social toll of poor physical and mental health at work.

In Australia, absenteeism costs an estimated $7 billion, and presenteeism (working at a reduced capacity) more than $26 billion, every year, according to a Medibank Private study.

To encourage productivity, many companies are turning to employer-sponsored wellness initiatives. Flu vaccinations, health checks, and subsidised gym memberships were among the most common  initiatives, according to the 2015 Bupa Benchmark Survey.

Another report in 2014, by Buck Consultants, revealed that 47 per cent of Australian companies offered health promotion programs to their staff.

But do these initiatives make any difference?

Nicholas Glozier, a workplace health expert and professor of psychological medicine and psychiatry at the University of Sydney, said any evidence of their effectiveness was circumspect.

“What often happens is those people who want to do these things take up the program. The people you really want to take the programs, don’t.”

The best employers and organisations promote healthy workplaces from all angles. This might include dealing with structural and organisational factors that affect how their employees feel, Professor Glozier said.

workplace health relax massage

Massages are a popular workplace perk. Photo: Getty

But it’s not enough to promote physical wellbeing.

According to a 2016 paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the biggest hazards in today’s workplaces are psychological rather than physical. They include the demands of work and issues surrounding control, support, relationships, roles and change.

Professor Glozier said the danger of narrow wellbeing programs was that they detracted from resolving other issues that contributed to poor health.

“If you design good jobs, limit demands, provide people with control and sustainable work, good cultures and policies, that creates a mentally healthy workplace,” Professor Glozier said.

“If wellbeing programs are seen as the only thing, they will ultimately be a failure.

“It locates the problem within the individual and says work stress is your problem – we’ve given you a wellbeing program, therefore you should be fine and we can do whatever the hell we want to you.”

Data from Safe Work Australia reveals that 23 per cent of serious mental health compensation claims arise from work pressures, 20 per cent from work-related bullying or harassment and 11 per cent from occupational violence.

Claims for mental health problems were on the rise, Professor Glozier said.

He attributed this to growing openness around depression and stress, reduced tolerance for workplace issues such as bullying and harassment, plus the increased demands of work.

Rapid change in the way we work adds to mental health pressures, according to a 2017 Safework NSW report. These days, workers switch careers and jobs more often, are more likely to experience organisational change, be employed on casual or contract arrangements and to work from home.

In addition, technological changes have contributed to social isolation and reduced our ability to switch off from work.

“There’s an increase in intensification,” Professor Glozier said. “The number of emails everyone gets per week is going through the roof and they go onto your phone, so you get them at all times.”

However, the NSW Mentally Healthy Workplace Strategy 2018-2022 found that only 8.8 per cent of NSW workplaces had an integrated approach to mental health.

Professor Grozier suggested mental health of staff should be a priority for senior managers.

And, in work-based wellness programs, he has found positive evidence for some, including meditation and exercise. The key is an evidence-based approach. “Do things that work,” he said.

Last week, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced a Productivity Commission inquiry to probe into the effect of workplace mental health on Australia’s economy.

Tips for employees

Organisational psychologist and author Clare Mann has these tips for workplace health.

  • Set boundaries around emails and text messages;
  • Complete the most important task of the day before being pulled into the world of others;
  • Finish projects (unfinished work causes stress);
  • Make time for exercise;
  • Have a dedicated breakfast and lunch break;
  • Avoid the false energy of coffee;
  • Don’t work excessive hours (your job will expand to the time you give it);
  • Talk to a supervisor, workplace wellbeing officer, human resources section or union;
  • If things don’t improve, consider making adjustments to your life and work.

Tips for employers

  • Invest in preventative measures;
  • Allow employees to talk about issues;
  • Give employees creative control over their work;
  • Introduce healthy activity programs such as mindfulness and exercise;
  • Start a regular staff lunch;
  • Introduce an employee assistance scheme.
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