Working Well Together: Promoting Health in the Workplace

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A workplace wellness program can help to keep your employees happy and healthy, causing a "ripple effect" throughout your company.


The health of your business is directly linked to the health of your employees. More than 600 million productive work hours are lost each year to sick time. Coupled with rising health insurance premiums and workers' compensation rates, there is a growing incentive for all companies to help employees stay well.

Today, more than 81% of private workplaces with 50 or more employees offer at least one health-promotion activity for their staffs. Workplace wellness concerns, however, go way beyond promoting a smoke-free lifestyle and helping smokers kick their habit. Increasingly common in the workplace are programs aimed at physical fitness, nutrition and weight control, stress management, back care, and blood pressure and cholesterol reduction.

The development of these programs translates into decreased healthcare costs, increased productivity for companies and increased satisfaction for employees. A workplace wellness program can be created — with a "bottom-line" payoff — for any size business, including yours.

In this Quick-Read, you will find:

  • Reasons for adopting workplace wellness programs.
  • Workplace health-promotion strategies.
  • Free and low-cost resources for workplace wellness programs.


The Costly Effects of Employee Illness and Injury

You might be surprised how much your unhealthy employees are costing you. What may seem like an occasional sick day here or there can add up to a lot of dollars lost by your company each year. When you add up the direct and indirect costs, you may find that it's worth an extra investment to keep your employees healthy.

Direct (Out-of-Pocket) Costs*:

  • Medical care/health insurance (higher premiums for companies with frequent use).
  • Temporary disability insurance.
  • Workers' compensation.

Indirect (Lost-Output) Costs*:

  • Increased employee absenteeism.
  • Impaired employee functioning on the job.
  • Reduced employee productivity.
  • Employee turnover, replacement and retraining.
  • Negative employee morale and company social climate.
  • Reduced overall quality of life and well-being of employee.
  • Possible premature death of employee.


Workplace Wellness Makes a Bottom-Line Difference

By addressing the health concerns of employees, company wellness programs can drastically reduce negative effects and result in the following benefits:

  • Improved morale.
  • Reduced turnover.
  • Increased recruitment potential.
  • Reduced absenteeism.
  • Containment of healthcare costs.
  • Improved employee health.

In addition, your customers will notice that your employees are more vibrant.

More organizations are now looking at workplace wellness not as frill, but as something tangible that can be noted on the bottom line. Consider the examples below from workplace wellness programs as reported by members of the Wellness Councils of America in The Cost Benefit of Worksite Wellness:

Reduced use of health benefits and lower medical claims — Providence Health System offered financial incentives to employees who demonstrated responsibility for their health and fitness based on set criteria. The result: Healthcare claims were 28% lower for its employees than at nine other similar systems.

Lower absenteeism — DuPont Co. found that each dollar invested in workplace health promotion yielded $1.42 over a two-year period in lower absenteeism. A second DuPont two-year study revealed a $2.05:1 return ("Health Promotion Goes to Work: Programs with an Impact," U.S. Public Health Service, 1993). Absences among blue-collar workers due to illness unrelated to the job dropped 15% at 41 industrial sites where the program was offered. Compare that with a 5.8% decline at 19 sites where it was not.

Lower lifestyle-related claim costs — Union Pacific Railroad introduced to its employees the concept of personal health management. As a result, employees in the treatment group experienced the following benefits: 45% lowered their blood pressure, 34% lowered their cholesterol, 30% moved out of the at-risk range for weight problems, and 21% stopped smoking.

Decrease in total direct and indirect costs — A county government in California offered classes and fitness training to prevent back injuries. The result was an increase in employee morale and a reduction in workers' comp claims, medical costs and sick days related to back injuries — all producing a net cost-benefit ratio of 1-to-1.79.

Your business can reap similar benefits through its own health promotion program.

Workplace Health-Promotion Strategies

Mayo Clinic researchers found that 70% of illness is related to health habits and is therefore theoretically preventable. Workplace health promotion stands out as the long-term answer to improving health behavior patterns and keeping your employees well.

A health promotion program can include anything from a healthcare information bulletin board to gym facilities, a massage room, yoga classes, and on-site health screenings. The unique needs of your company and its employees will determine the content, scope and focus of your health promotion program. UCI Health Promotion Center recommends these top workplace health-promotion strategies:

  • Implement employee "Lifestyle Change" programs (see Real-Life Example).

  • Develop an organization culture that is flexible, socially supportive and responsive to employees' needs by providing training in such things as team building, conflict resolution and violence-prevention skills.

  • Offer a program of medical and disease-prevention benefits that includes clinical prevention services for employees and their dependents, such as:

    • Immunizations.
    • Annual physicals.
    • YMCA or health-club memberships.
    • Subsidized discounts or reduced fees for wellness services or resources.

  • Demonstrate management support of health promotion:

    • Develop a corporate health-promotion mission statement.
    • Maintain a health bulletin board.
    • Provide self-care books and pamphlets to employees.
    • Maintain a smoke-free, drug-free workplace.
    • Support a walking club for employees.

  • Communicate regularly with employees regarding health promotion via:

    • Meetings
    • Newsletters
    • Posters
    • E-mail
    • Payroll inserts
    • Suggestion box

Establishing a successful workplace wellness program can be simple, affordable and fun. By formalizing a plan and taking advantage of available resources, you can improve the health of your employees and your business.


Small businesses can benefit greatly from scaled-down versions of the health-promotion programs found in larger companies.

Inprise, a software company in Scotts Valley, Calif., contracted with Cornerstone Fitness to provide its 400 employees with a comprehensive wellness and health-promotion program. The program concentrates on fitness, recreation, healthcare awareness, stress management and nutrition. The on-site fitness center has cardiovascular st rength equipment, aerobics classes, a full-size indoor basketball gymnasium, racquetball and squash courts, tennis courts, a pool, and a multipurpose softball and soccer field.

Employees not only value the program, they use it: 70% to 80% of workers participate in various programs, much higher than the industry standard of 30%.

"Having an on-site fitness center is a tremendous benefit," wrote one employee on an evaluation form. "The convenience facilitates a more balanced lifestyle and allows me to return to work recharged."

(Source: "Well-Employed: These days, taking care of business means taking care of workers" by Anne Federwisch, OTR, NurseWeek/HealthWeek, October 18, 1999).

DO IT [top]

  1. Discuss workplace wellness with your employees. Find out what issues are of specific interest and concern. Request everyone's support and participation; it's one way to ensure your program's success. Use the feedback to determine the content and goals of your program. Ask one or two individuals to help develop and coordinate it.

  2. Provide a scaled-down version of programs found in larger firms.

  3. Take advantage of free resources. Contact your local American Heart Association, American Lung Association and March of Dimes; they all provide speakers and publications. Many city and county health departments offer resource publications. And your local fire department or American Red Cross offers on-site CPR and first aid training.

  4. Find a long-term civic project that can double as a fitness activity. Planting a community garden and keeping it up can be rewarding to your company in many ways (such as employee health, good community citizenship, environmental action).

  5. Offer some simple activities at a time and place convenient for employees. Schedule once-a-month lunchtime speakers or videos on nutrition, stress management and exercise or set up lunch-hour discussion groups. Organize a healthy potluck and recipe exchange. Organize activities around health theme months, like National Nutrition Month (March) or Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October).

  6. Participate in local health coalitions. Collaborate with other businesses, government agencies and non-profit organizations to host a health fair or other wellness-education activities. Work with other small businesses in your complex to pool health resources.

  7. Contact your health insurance carrier. Your group plan should offer workplace wellness training, as well as health-education materials and speakers. Some offer discounts to health clubs, screenings, videos tapes on self-care and other programs.

  8. Track the results of your efforts. Document outcomes like rates of employee absenteeism, injury, illness, productivity and other, more direct, health-related costs, in order to measure your program investment.



Worksite Health Promotion by David H. Chenoweth (Human Kinetics, 1998).

Health Promotion in the Workplace, 3rd edition, edited by Michael P. O'Donnell (Delmar Thomson Learning, 2001).

Internet Sites

Employee Wellness Program at University of Michigan — An example of a sophisticated wellness program developed by a major educational institution for its employees and a good source of ideas for designing your own program.

"Employee Wellness Is Good Business," by Judy A. Violette. CPA Journal 60 (December 1990), 90-92.

Small Employer Health Benefits Survey. Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2000 and 2002.

Article Contributors

Writer: Kimberly Stansell

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