Looking back at the corporate wellness programs of our grandparents gives us an appreciation for how far we’ve come — and what the future holds.
The corporate wellness programs of yore were crude efforts that often chased the wrong goals, according to the Limeade ebook “The Evolution of Corporate Wellness.” Yet what we know now is only possible through these early experiments in corporate wellness.
As corporate wellness moves into the “Wellness 2.0” generation, it’s clear that the initiatives most companies undertake now are “just scratching the surface” of possibilities, as the Limeade ebook puts it.
So how did we get here? And what exactly is “Wellness 2.0”?
Read on for a brief history of corporate wellness, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way that have brought us to where we are today.
The History of Corporate Wellness
From scattered fitness programs to data-driven strategy, a rundown of corporate wellness history:
Pre-World War II
Early practitioners of corporate wellness had the right idea: they recognized the benefits of a healthy workforce and understood that healthier employees are more productive. As early as the late 1800s — long before health insurance benefits were common — manufacturers such as Ford, Pullman Company and National Cash Register had on-site exercise programs or facilities for employees.
“These initiatives were the exception, not the rule — and they were crude by today’s standards,” according to Limeade. “But they started a revolution.”
1950s to 1970s
“The 1950s also saw the emergence of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which were initially created to help employees with alcohol programs but gradually expanded to address other work-life issues,” according to Corporate Wellness Magazine’s “The Evolution of Worksite Wellness.”
Smoking cessation became a concern as well, with the Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of cigarette smoking.
In 1970, the U.S. Department of Labor established the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to prevent workplace accidents and injuries.
But the biggest change post-World War II was the emergence of employer-covered health insurance, thanks to Internal Revenue Service rulings that made it tax-free.
Still, mid-century corporate wellness had a narrow focus. Workplace exercise programs were often only available to management-level employees, and, according to Limeade, “leaders were mostly concerned with illness prevention — only one small aspect of a person’s well-being.
“Their primary concern was to prevent absences and injuries in the workplace, rather than promoting healthy behaviors in their employees.”
1980s to 1990s
Fitness and health took a front seat in the 1980s.
While it was still common in the early ’80s to see ashtrays on conference room tables, anti-smoking measures quickly doubled down.
Boeing Co. led the way in 1984 by becoming the largest U.S. corporation to ban smoking in the workplace, starting in select facilities. By 2009, Boeing’s entire workplace and campuses were smoke-free, according to the Workforce article, “Shaping Up: Workplace Wellness in the ’80s and Today.”
Then, in 1987, a groundbreaking study linked smoking, obesity and not using seat belts to increased healthcare costs. Similar studies followed.
Suddenly, employers had compelling data that connected employee wellbeing with reduced costs. “Prior to that, fitness centers and wellness programs were just perks,” writes Workforce’s Rebecca Vesely.
With this new focus on data-driven corporate wellness, the use of health-risk assessments to evaluate and track employee health became commonplace in the 1990s. But it got off on the wrong track.
“Employers began using health-risk assessments to identify and target only the sickest and unhealthiest workers for interventions, putting all resources into this subset of employees,” Vesely writes. As one expert tells her, “I sort of liken it to bailing water from the Titanic.”
Unsurprisingly, targeting and punishing high-risk employees doesn’t inspire robust participation or success. Low participation and high failure rates doomed these high-risk-only programs from the start.
2000s to Present
Research into the effectiveness of high-risk-only corporate wellness paved the way for a more holistic approach in the new millennium.
“After 30 years, we know the real advantage is helping healthy people stay healthy,” Dee Edington, founder of the Health Management Research Center at the University of Michigan, tells Workforce.
Edington’s research in 2000 also showed that being “high-risk” or “low-risk” is not static. People naturally flow from high-risk to low-risk, and back.
“So the best programs encourage healthy behaviors from everyone, in addition to helping the high-risk population reduce risks,” Limeade concludes.
The New Corporate Wellness: Inclusive and Celebratory
Corporate wellness, once regarded by the C-Suite as “fluffy,” is now respected. In 2011, a report found that 87 percent of large employers describe their wellness program as a leading corporate strategy.
Going forward, corporate wellness is bringing together the excitement and dedication of the ’80s and the data-driven strategy of the ’90s for programming that engages all employees in their health.
Instead of shaming high-risk employees, healthy behaviors are encouraged, reinforced and celebrated.
Wellness 2.0 has a population-wide scope and recognizes that true wellbeing is about more than reducing common risk factors like smoking and obesity. It takes into account stress, environment, job satisfaction, fitness, mindfulness, work-life balance and more.
“We’re moving from wellness to well-being,” LuAnn Heinen, vice president at the National Business Group on Health, tells Workforce’s Rita Pyrillis in her article, “Welcome to Wellness 2.0”:
“In traditional wellness programs, we measure success by participation and ROI on medical costs, but in today’s approach it’s not about ROI. It’s about productivity, and business metrics, and retention, and customer satisfaction. It’s not about health and benefits in silos, but about broader well-being, and that includes social connectedness, financial security, emotional health and job satisfaction. The old way of getting everybody to do the same thing is being abandoned.”
Most importantly, the corporate wellness of the future is about learning from the past and having the flexibility to change. The next generation of corporate wellness takes more than smoking cessation incentives and gym discounts — it’s about finding a custom-fit, holistic approach to wellness that builds a happy, healthy and engaged workforce!
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