Five ways workplace health programs could improve

I've been around the health and fitness industry for close to 25 years now and have learnt a lot about what does and doesn't work when it comes to corporate health programs.

Reflecting on my career and digging into the research archives, I believe there are five factors integral to a healthy workplace.

1. Lead by example

To create a healthy culture, senior managers need to actively participate in programs and embody the principles being taught.

I've seen companies commence programs only to have the leader/s not turn up, or behaving in ways opposing what the program is designed to encourage.

It's the little things that become big things. Sending emails late at night and on weekends (and expecting an immediate response). Cramming each day with back-to-back meetings. Always running late, not prioritising exercise, not regulating your emotions and always leaving deadlines to the last minute.

There is no point offering anti-smoking programs if no one in the business smokes.

Fact: The behaviours of leaders are fundamental to change and create a ripple effect throughout the entire organisation.

2. Know the research

Many companies now employ a range of allied health professionals (with specific expertise) to deliver and support workplace health programs. Exercise physiologists, nutritionists, productivity experts and sport scientists all help corporations get the balance right in their programs.

If your programs have no rigour or grounding in evidence, a lot of educated employees will be skeptical and buy out. In contrast, if your programs are too heavy on the nerd power, people's eyes will gloss over and they'll totally switch off.

Fact: Getting the balance right between research and practicality is the perfect mix.


3. Crunch the numbers

"What gets measured, gets done," said Irish mathematical physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin. Measurement and KPIs are the foundations of science and also underpin high performing businesses.

Helping employees understand the importance of looking after themselves and how that underpins business performance is a fundamental factor of behaviour change. Capturing and packaging data on a range of information - health, productivity, sleep quality, recovery and life satisfaction - provides a baseline that each individual can work with.

These metrics help understand the areas that need focusing on, and results in tailored programs with a much higher return. For example, there is no point offering anti-smoking programs if no one in the business smokes.

Goal setting is more successful when it's highly specific. It's the difference between saying 'I want to be more flexible' versus 'I'm going to increase my sit and reach score by five centimetres by stretching each morning for 15 minutes'.

Fact: Quality data is paramount to tailoring programs specific to employees needs and measuring overall success and ROI.

4. Take a holistic approach

The overall goal for a workplace health program is to initiate healthy behaviours and build confidence so habits continue long-term.

There has been a major shift over the past 20 years as to how we define 'health'. It used to be defined as 'in the absence of disease' and previously focused on single causative factors – like eat better, or do more cardio, or learn how to relax. Health programs tended to be mutually exclusive when it came to corporate health. Let the physiologists look after the body, the psychologists look after our brains, the workplace experts look after productivity, and the recovery experts to help us chill out and improve sleep.

The paradigm has shifted and workplaces now realise a multifactorial approach integrating physical, mental, environmental and social well-being. This is much more successful.

It's important to also acknowledge how each person will travel their own 'wellness journey'. Some may be incredibly fit and others complete beginners; some might eat kale and quinoa, while others get by on a caffeine addiction. The point is, you need to ensure your programs cater for a range of people and market to their needs appropriately.

Fact: A multifaceted approach integrating physical, mental, environmental and social wellbeing will see more successful results.

5. Define your narrative

The research, the numbers, and the participation are all essential ingredients, but by far the most powerful factor is the emotional connection linking the overall program vision with specific behaviours. It's demonstrating a clear understanding of 'why'.

Successful programs link to the overall business and people strategy and don't just sit as a tick-the-box agenda, with little budget commitment. Businesses achieving real change have a strong narrative from leadership creating an emotional imperative and explaining the 'why'.

A compelling narrative helps employees understand they are valued, way beyond just being an employee or a resource. This is reinforced by Solomon Markos and M. Sridevi, whose 2010 study Employee Engagement: The Key to Improving Performance found emotionally engaged employees are highly motivated within their role and go above and beyond the confines of their contract. This is often referred to as 'capturing the hearts and minds of your employees'.

Showing you care for your employees will do far more to boost health and productivity than simply having a wellbeing program in place.

Fact: The most important part of a wellbeing program is defining a clear narrative and demonstrating how it connects with the overall business and people strategy.

Final word

Employee health and wellbeing goes beyond a group of dedicated professionals providing one-off interventions like health checks, health expos, or a workshop on stress management. To really give tangible benefits in terms of productivity and emotional wellbeing, programs need to be well thought out and fully supported by leaders.

If you really do believe employees are your most valuable resource, then looking after them in both body and mind must make good business sense.

How does your workplace look after your health and wellbeing? Let Andrew know in the Comments section.

Workplace performance expert Andrew May is a Partner at KPMG Performance Clinic, a best-selling author and keynote speaker. He has spent the past 20 years helping business leaders and their teams improve performance, productivity and wellbeing.

Follow Andrew May on Twitter