Too many of us spend too much time in the office stuck behind our desk and not as much as we would like away from it. We aren't as fit and energetic as we could be as a result — and our bosses are paying for it.
June is National Employee Wellness Month. That has provided a data opportunity for Virgin Pulse, the health-and-wellness arm of balloonist and entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Group, to examine the vital signs of the U.S. workplace. Companies can do more, its latest annual survey finds, to promote a healthier working environment. That helps not just employees; their employers get more engaged and thus more productive workers, and to reduce their health insurance costs.
The survey's key findings include a mismatch between what companies are offering and what employees say they want (see chart below). The study finds that the three most common wellness programs offered are those to help quit smoking, physical activity programs, and mental health and depression services, with the last showing a significant increase (14%) in its provision from last year. Employees say their top three choices would be physical activity programs, healthier food choices at work and onsite gyms and classes.
The study describes that mismatch as a "significant gap." The provision of physical activity programs has fallen to 53% of the companies surveyed this year from 57% in 2012. Weight management programs have been cut back over the same period, to 47% from 54% even as U.S. adult obesity levels have hit record levels.
On the plus side, on-site gym classes have become more common, up to 36.5% from 31% in 2012 while the percentage of companies providing more nutritional food has risen from 35% to 40%. Many companies say they have plans to increase the provision of physical activity and nutrition programs in the year ahead.
Employees say that three of the four top reasons to participate in company wellness programs are to improve their health, raise their energy and lower their stress levels. The fourth reason given is to earn incentives for being healthy, which can be non-financial ones such as being given a more flexible work schedule.
It is more fun to pursue wellness programs as a group. The study underlines the importance of the social aspect. More than half the companies surveyed made their wellness programs available to spouses and one third to domestic partners as well as to co-workers.
Virgin Pulse also finds that companies are struggling to measure, and in some cases not even bothering to measure the bottom-line benefits of their company wellness programs. That is doubly surprising given the potential numbers involved. The study suggests that U.S. companies lose more than $225 billion in productivity a year because of sick leave and the sort of employee disengagement that wellness programs can address.
Nor do many companies calculate how much they are saving on healthcare insurance. More than two out of five companies are also leaving on the table millions of dollars of incentives for wellness-at-work programs offered under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. One in seven of the companies surveyed didn't realize such incentives were available.