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Workplace wellness: A $300 billion productivity crisis

Posted by Chad O'Connor  August 21, 2013 11:00 AM

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Don’t smoke.

Exercise more. Snack less. Unless it’s broccoli. Have all you want of that.

How much do you walk every day? Is it more than Mike in accounting? Want to challenge him? Come on, I dare you.

Do you have chronic conditions? How are you treating them?

Pop quiz. Are the quotes above from:
1. Your mom/the little voice in your head that tells you what you “should” be doing (admittedly, these may sound similar sometimes … or maybe that’s just me)?
2. Your doctor?
3. The “wellness” program that your company’s HR department has recently rolled out to staff with great fanfare?

Answer: It could be any one of these – but for the purposes of this piece, let’s go with number 3. I believe the intentions of such programs are good – or at least that they start that way—and employees find great value in them. We recently commissioned a survey of more than 1,300 businesses and 10,000 employees at the start of June’s National Employee Wellness Month which found that a whopping 87 percent of employees consider health and wellness offerings when choosing an employer; and 80 percent believe their employer cares about their well being.

But even with that, too often “wellness” programs take a prescriptive approach that offer obvious advice, make something extremely personal into a cute “game,” or are really just a back-door into creating programs targeted at the most “at risk” employees—those who are overweight, smokers, have chronic conditions and, in short, are costing the company money.

I think we all know what we need to do to be healthier, and sure, we could all use some inspiration to do some of these things. And yes, unhealthy employees can cost employers a great deal.

But smart companies are flipping this around – and creating programs that truly address engagement and “total quality of life.” So I’d like to replace the quotes above with one from Aristotle: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.

For some, engagement—in relation to work—is hard to define, but they know it when they see it. It has a reputation for being a squishy, feel-good metric for an entitled workforce that doesn’t understand that it’s called “work” for a reason. And that’s what’s wrong. In fact, engagement is a critical measure of a company’s success—and truly a means to motivate employees to bring their best selves to work and be more productive as well as more physically and mentally charge. Yet recent numbers peg America’s “Engagement Problem” as costing companies more than $300 billion annually in lost productivity.

I’ll let you digest that number for a moment. That’s “billion” with a “b.” Not so squishy, is it?

For the purposes of this piece, I am defining engagement as “emotional involvement or commitment.” And while a company’s approach to wellness may have a goal of making their employees health better, are they truly making them feel better, like they can in fact change their lives for good?

One means of doing this is changing traditional workplace wellness so it encompasses all kinds of health that impact total quality of life, beyond just physical health: mental health, family/social health and financial health. Equipping employees with tools to help alleviate the burdens of daily life—even as simple as a single online portal that links them to special programs that address each of these challenges—help them to feel like their employer truly cares… and frees them to do better work.

No less a source than Gallup, the gold standard in polling, agrees. The company regularly conducts surveys on employee engagement. Its most recent report on the subject, its 14th annual, was titled: “Engagement at Work: Its Effect on Performance Continues in Tough Economic Times.” In it, the research giant found that “business or work units that score in the top half of their organization in employee engagement have nearly doubled the odds of success (based on a composite of financial, customer, retention, safety, quality, shrinkage, and absenteeism).

The current approaches to workplace wellness are broken—and ultimately, aren’t doing anything to sustainably change lives for good or boost productivity. So rather than focusing on wellness, let’s focus on total quality of life—providing employees with the tools to help them beyond their physical health, in order to inspire and engage them. We have a $300 billion productivity challenge to solve—and I, and our major corporate customers, firmly believe total quality of life programs—which can include wellness as an element—is a major step toward doing so.

Chris Boyce is the CEO of Framingham-based Virgin HealthMiles, a company of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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