Business & Economy Health & Wellness

Wellness programs help employees — and their companies

(Illustration by Shaw Nielsen)

Workers reported better health while their organizations saw the benefits

Most Americans now have one or more chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety or depression, and more than half of Americans have multiple conditions. That adds thousands of dollars — sometimes even tens of thousands of dollars — per employee per year to companies’ annual health care costs.

Beyond that, poor long-term health influences a person’s ability to manage stress, fatigue, work-life balance and overall well-being.

However, more than 20 years of research at the University of Georgia indicates workplace-based health and wellness programs can offer a variety of positive effects for both workers and their employers.

Robert Vandenberg

“The programs can help employees by making them more self-aware of how important it is to manage their chronic disease,” said Robert Vandenberg, the Robert O. Arnold Professor of Business and head of the department of management at the Terry College of Business.

“Equally so, managers and others can’t remain silent about chronic diseases anymore,” he said. “If they want workers to be productive members of the organization, they’ve got to step up to the plate and help people to manage their disease.”

Vandenberg, along with professors in UGA’s College of Public Health, has researched workplace health programs across two decades as part of UGA’s Workplace Health Group. They’ve drawn more than $13 million in external funding from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and worked with large employers, including The Home Depot, Union Pacific Railroad and Dow Chemical.

The group’s recent research was published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, considered the leading journal in public health, and the Journal of Applied Psychology, one of the top-tier publications for management research.

Customizing wellness programs

The Workplace Health Group translated a well-known wellness program — called the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program — to fit the unique characteristics of work organizations. In 50-minute sessions held twice a week over eight weeks, employees learn about work-life balance, stress management, nutrition and communication with supervisors and co-workers.

In the American Journal of Health Promotion article, which won a 2021 Paper of the Year Award, they worked with nearly 400 participants across 14 worksites in Georgia and Tennessee. About 79% of participants reported at least one chronic condition, with an average of 2.7 chronic conditions each.

The research team found program participants increased healthy behaviors such as exercise, stretching and fruit and vegetable intake while decreasing their consumption of sugary drinks and fast food. They also had better chronic disease management in terms of medication adherence, pain perception, stress, fatigue and mentally and physically unhealthy days.

“When we first formed the Workplace Health Group, our idea was that healthy people and healthy workplaces equal successful businesses,” said David DeJoy, professor emeritus of health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health.

“The work we’ve done has tapped into the idea of organizational culture and organizational climate,” he said. “You can’t separate the culture of health from the culture of the organization.”

Employees perceived increased company support

In the Journal of Applied Psychology paper, they surveyed 20 organizations with 450 employees across multiple sectors, including city-county governments, school systems, banks, manufacturing, nonprofits and health care organizations. The participants had an average of 2.9 chronic conditions each.

The research team found the program increased perceived organizational support among employees, which directly improved their job stress, burnout, work engagement and organizational citizenship behaviors. Offering the program during work time, in particular, strengthened the benefits even more.

“If you take care of your people, your organization will be more successful. If you ask any CEO, they’ll say they know that, but we’ve been able to put the data to that in real life,” said Mark Wilson, professor emeritus of health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health.

“It’s no longer a question of whether companies should offer health and wellness programs,” he said. “Now it’s more about finding the best ways to do so and understanding how that will change.”

Companies still have work to do

Some questions still remain, particularly how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced and will continue to influence remote work and flexible work options, as well as the workplace wellness initiatives that are offered.

Incentives that have become popular in recent years, such as free gym memberships or on-site facilities, may be akin to paying “lip service,” Vandenberg said. Companies don’t appear to be measuring their return on investment for these programs, he added, whether basic enrollment information such as how many people are using their memberships or more detailed analyses of whether employee health has improved or whether the organization’s health care costs have declined.

“On the one hand, there’s more recognition out there of the costs that chronic disease and mental health issues are having,” Vandenberg said. “But on the other hand, are organizations really tackling the problem? That’s where my concerns are — that they’re not doing it.”

Vandenberg’s co-authors on the Journal of Applied Psychology paper included DeJoy, Wilson, Nicholas Haynes and Heather Padilla at the University of Georgia and Matthew Smith at Texas A&M University. Vandenberg’s co-authors on the American Journal of Health Promotion paper included DeJoy, Wilson, Haynes, Padilla and Smith, as well as Heather Zuercher at the University of Georgia, Phaedra Corso at Kennesaw State University and Kate Lorig at the Self-Management Resource Center in California.