How Effective are Wellness Programs in the Workplace?

April 23, 2019 • ☕️ 6 min read


The following text is a direct relay from the first part of the assesment handed in during semester 1 2019.

Executive Summary

The purpose of this examination is to research and review the existing information already conducted on wellness programs and the effectiveness they have been shown to provide towards positive health amongst populations. Much of what is discussed is to contrast what Australia is doing in comparison to other international cultures; highlighting differences, either positive or negative, to find pain points that still exist in modern workplaces. Thus providing the necessary tools required to conduct primary research to locate barriers that may exist in modern work cultures that are preventing the participation of wellness programs.

Introduction to Context

In Australia, employment rates (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018) and life expectancies (AIHW, 2018) have been at an all time high in recent years. However, in similar first world countries, roughly 30 million work days have been lost due to various illnesses in 2017/18 alone (HSE, 2018), representing quite a significant economical cost, both for businesses and governments alike.

Overall wellness and the guaranteed access to effective health services have traditionally been the function of government (WBCSD, 2006, p. 2). Although, in recent years it has become clear that companies have taken interest in their employees health, not only in standard workplace health and safety practices, but many have begun providing wellness programs (Mattke, et al., 2013, p. 105) in an effort to improve employee health, which ultimately improves productivity. However companies have been experiencing low participation despite incentives they may provide (AIHW, 2018).

What is a Wellness Program?

Wellness Program Mindmap. Including: Yoga, Smoking Cessation, Gym Access, Health Food Initiatives, Cooking Classes, Meditation Breaks and more.

Research Questions

How effective are wellness programs in the workplace?

Workplace wellness programs have begun to place themselves as an integral part of modern workplace culture over the past several decades. This has marked a cultural shift from governments traditionally promoting health and ensuring services are available to those who need it, to employers taking the lead by providing more comprehensive programs to their employees as a healthier workforce can lead to a more productive workplace environment (Comcare 2011, p. 3).

How effectively have different cultures included workplace wellness programs compared to Australia?

The aim of this report is to look at how effective these programs are at promoting wellness within the workplace, by not only looking at the data presented within Australian workplaces but also by looking at other cultures and countries ventures at implementing workplace wellness programs and the results they have been proven to create.

Wellness Program Research Question List Map. Other research questions not explored in this post*

International and Domestic Health

The knowledge around wellness programs in the workplace and its benefits are quite exhaustive. An example of this is a report from the World Health Organisation, citing almost 400 references (Burton, 2010) in an attempt to scope the subject. The review aims are to highlight the different approaches other cultures and countries have taken to tackle the growing trend of preventable chronic diseases and other poor health traits versus what Australia is doing to prevent such increasing ill health trends, primarily with the promotion of wellness programs within the workplace.

Corpulence and obesity have become a major public health concern over the past few decades. Afflicting 63% of all adults in Australia (AIHW, 2018, p.3), ranking the nation as the fifth most obese country on the global stage (See Figure Below); with The United States ranking number one, who were last reported to be reaching 71.6% of the adult population (CDC, 2016). With obesity being linked directly to 22 diseases; 11 types of cancer, and three cardiovascular conditions such a Diabetes, dementia and asthma, (AIHW, 2018, p.3) it has become a discussion of concern, especially when looking at the speed at which it has impacted the Australian population. When compared to statistics from 1995, obesity has increased a staggering 19% (AIHW, 2018), representing a large and unavoidable problem in modern cultures.

Obesity levels by country with mesured data. Order: #1 USA, #2 Mexico, #3 New Zealand, #4 Hungary, #5 Australia.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (2010, p. 4) discusses that with the Australian workforces combined absenteeism from work due to chronic diseases and poor health is costing the Australian economy upwards of an estimated $7 Billion each year. Though this doesn’t just affect Australia, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in Great Britain released statistics in 2018 showing that 26.8 million self-reported days were lost to work-related ill health (HSE, 2018).

Statistics and outcomes like these have led many businesses to prioritise the importance of healthy behaviours amongst their employees in the workplace environment, promoting what has commonly now known as ‘Workplace Wellness’.


International studies such as Yeung and Johnston (2018, p. viii) in cooperation with Global Wellness Institute, have found that only 10% of the world’s workers have access to workplace wellness programs. This is evident in high-income regions such as North America at 54%, Europe with 25% and Asia/Pacific sitting only at 5%. Mattke et al. (2015) concurs with their report for the Rand Corporation, also estimating half of all United States companies with 50 or more employees offer some form of wellness program, extending to the high 90 percentiles for companies with 50,000 or more employees. A survey by the Kaiser/HRET (2013, p. 202) also validates these finding, concurring that large workplaces (200 or more employees) are more likely to offer a workplace wellness program over a smaller workplace (3-199 employees).

The effectiveness of workplace wellness programs is well documented. Mattke et al. (2015) discusses that though wellness programs are fairly common, when compared to the 5% program rate in Asia/Pacific as revealed by Yeung and Johnston (2018, p. viii), the median participation uptake has been found to be only an estimated 20% for employers that do not offer incentives. While companies who do offer either just a reward, or a reward and a penalty of some form have found participation rate to reach close to 75% (Mattke S. , et al., 2014, p. 26). This suggests effective workplace wellness programs can be implemented by using methods such as offering incentives to participate.

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Australia’s evidence of effective workplace wellness programs, though not as comprehensive as larger nations, has proven to be insightful. Government initiatives both federal and state have been conducted to promote healthy workplaces. At the federal level, Comcare (2011, p. 3) reported in 2011 that health and wellbeing programs have proved excellent return on investment (ROI). Showing that businesses that have taken steps to improve workplace wellness decreased workers compensation costs by 40.7%, reduced sick leave absenteeism by 25.3% and saved close to $6 for every $1 invested in wellness programs.

Wellness programs ROI stats

Barriers, Pain Points and Ineffectiveness

Mattke S. , et al. (2014, p. 27) finds in their report for the RAND Corporation that half of the small businesses questioned without wellness programs cited “lack of financial resources” and “not cost-effective” as the two primary reasons. Suggesting that despite the various studies done to prove the cost-effectiveness of workplace wellness programs,such as the report prepared by Comcare (2011), accessible knowledge and exposure to smaller businesses has been ineffective.

Person, Colby, Bulova, and Eubanks (2010, p. 153) discusses that after workplace wellness programs have been implement, barriers were discovered; such as insufficient incentives, inconvenient locations, time limitations, uninteresting topics presented, health beliefs and disinterest in the programs. Burton (2010, p. 44) suggests that an ineffective wellness program occurs when the employer unilaterally implements a program without input from the employees it applies too. This leaves the employee resistant to being imposed upon the program, and potentially leaving the workforce feeling frustrated due to the program becoming what they may have not needed or wanted.

In conclusion the review of literature in this section has primarily focused on the results from other cultures outside of Australia. This can be accredited to the lack of initiatives, however recent pushes for wellness in Australian workplaces such as the Victorian “WorkSafe WorkWell” program have begun the preliminary steps for required change. Though, when looking at the wider global cultural shift; workplace wellness programs have been proven to be a much needed change within modern workplaces to counteract the growing trends of chronic diseases globally caused by ill health practices.

Worksafe Workwell website screenshot. URL: www.workwell.vic.gov.au/toolkit

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