Wellness @ Work

Wellness at work, what does that mean?

As this is a blog about wellness I do have a definition:

Wellness is taking control of self and learning to make choices towards a more balanced and healthy existence, towards a more fulfilling life physically, psychologically, spiritually, socially, environmentally, intellectually and occupationally to create the best chance of resilience to stress and disease. It is a multidimensional state of being well………. not just healthy.

The term workplace wellness, as the name suggests, refers to workplace programs.  This explanation from Berry and colleagues is one of the best I have found: “an organized, employer sponsored program that is designed to support employees…as they adopt and sustain behaviors and reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit organizations”.

Sound appealing?  Want some of that at your place of work?

Although these may be worthy goals of any workplace wellness program, do they actually achieve them? If they did healthcare costs would be down globally, health risks would be significantly reduced and workers across all industries would be less stressed and happier.  In fact we know this is NOT the case.

What Do The Survey’s Say

Job satisfaction declined to 47% in the USA last year and it’s even lower in Europe.  In Hong Kong nearly 31% of employees say that ‘work-life balance’ is not talked about in the organization they work for, with 52% suggesting that senior business leaders should be taking responsibility for improving work-life balance for their employees.  The same survey found that the top contributor to the ‘lack’ of work-life balance for Hong Kong workers is the competitive nature of international business.  So working in a competitive global city isn’t facilitating well people.

The 2012 Hong Kong Happiness Index found that:

  • Work and financial pressures are the main causes of unhappiness
  • Income groups earning 30-40K are the least happiness – perhaps this relates to long working hours and financial pressures
  • Hong Kong people need or are looking for more fulfillment in their lives

Another Hong Kong jobs survey found ¾ of employees have suffered from body aches related to the neck, shoulder, back and wrist during the past six months.

The annual Hong Kong Work-Life Balance Survey also goes on to conclude that there is a “mismatch between the work-life initiatives provided by employers and those desired by employees”.

Is Wellness at Work Failing?

Motivation to provide workplace wellness is led by the high costs of absenteeism, turnover, and healthcare.

Despite wellness and workplace wellness being booming global industries worth millions of dollars, they appear to be falling short on teaching and facilitating people to be well; to improve lifestyle; to reduce and avoid stress at work and in relationships.

I think it is a paradox that health insurance companies run corporate wellness programs or at least lead the direction of work in this industry.  This is like having a pharmaceutical company run a health clinic, a clear conflict of interest.  These standard programs tend to incorporate run of the mill components such as health risk assessments, weight loss programs and fitness focus such as gym memberships.  They may have many components that appear to offer diversity and choice but in fact they have little substance, leaving many (often those most in need of health support) with decision paralysis, resulting in little to no engagement and a spiral of negative self-talk if they fail to achieve.

According to some Wellness Consultants wellness efforts in the workplace plateau or regress in 2-5 years, because workplace wellness programs tend to try and change behavior though compliance rather than creating a supportive culture and environment that supports healthy living, healthy work habits, social connections, and mutual respect in the workplace.  These elements foster commitment and committed people will want to engage with their organization and participate in its success.  Wellness professionals / organizations leaders should consider at least complementing run of the mill programs by bringing innovative, out of the box ideas to the workplace for long term employee benefit for all.  Creating wellness in the workplace is more than just supporting those employees with health issues or those who contribute to the increasing cost of health insurance premiums.

Some Ideas To Brainstorm With Your Leaders

We’ve determined that wellness is individual and involves a holistic multidimensional approach, so one size will not fit for all.  Organizations rarely apply the cookie cutter  – one size fits – approach to business operations or retaining clients / customers so why not ditch this approach when it comes to the employees as well.

If people are allowed to work in a way that allows them to live they do perform better and are more engaged.

Here are some ideas

Give your people responsibility with clear goals and objectives

  • Focus on positive outcomes rather than problems
  • Give positive and constructive feedback
  • Create motivation by enabling people to work to their strengths, to work at what they are good at, and they will be motivated. Identifying character strengths can be part of the annual assessment and simply done through this easy to use tool.

Flexible working hours and working arrangements

Flexible arrangements at work allow people to work in a way that allows them to live.

Encourage more walking and less sitting in the workplace

Less structured and organized efforts that still get your staff moving can include encouraging using stairs and walking instead of the lift or escalators.  This is a simple yet effective program component and may be combined with the use of a pedometer for those who may want to meet targets.

Making it fun as this video shows will encourage people to move and take self-responsibility for their wellness

Mind-Body Wellness

People work with not only their hands but also their hearts…and it is when people work with their hearts they find meaning and purpose, a kind of workplace where people can express their wholeselves and be fulfilled (Petchsawang & Duchon 2009)

This quote brings me to the use of mind-body practice in the workplace.  I have talked about this before here .  Many employees are already seeking out solutions in their own time to help with work stress and related issues including emotional problems, sleep disorders and many more chronic and debilitating problems.  (I see this from the large number of new people learning transcendental meditation and the increasing number of meditation courses available in Hong Kong).

Simple mind-body techniques taught at work can help people manage stress, anger, frustration and many negative emotions that can be exasperated in the workplace. Taught in the workplace, relevant issues can become the context of the training and dealt with more rapidly.

Also consider making available a silent space, within the workplace, for quiet time, meditation and the practice of mindfulness and providing ongoing coaching and counseling.

Another tip:  Encouraging employees to respond mindfully can start by removing the expectations of the need for an immediate response.

It has been found that although meditation is an individual therapy, collective practice can create deeper bonds amongst employees.  Mindful practice leads to more effective cognitive function which leads to more mindful action.

Organizations can support employees in taking control of their wellness outside of work as well. 

Encouragement, education and counseling can become a comprehensive part of wellness programs or benefits on offer.  Things that employees can be encouraged and supported to do outside of work may include:

  • Cutting off or detaching from technology in the evening, at least for a couple of hours
  • Spending time outside of work on hobbies, volunteering, sports or just being in nature
  • Getting quality sleep in good quantity and consistently.

Again these factors will lead to less stress and more engagement in employees.

What Does Not Work

Incentives and penalties

In the US there appears to be a debate about the benefits of using financial incentives for employees to join workplace wellness programs, or penalties for non-participation which can be the case for higher risk employees such as smokers.   The problem that I see with this approach is twofold.

Firstly it appears to discriminate suggesting that if you don’t participate you are going to be penalized financially.

Secondly it goes back to the assumption that only unwell employees are suitable for workplace wellness or wellness benefits.

But this incentivization provided with limited wellness options, has also been found to backfire and create more stress for those employees who don’t find the wellness program to their ‘liking’.  They don’t participate fully and are then left discouraged and potentially stressed about their lack of performance as well as not achieving or being awarded the financial incentive.  This is a problem with wellness programs that are primarily focused around physical fitness and gym attendance.

As for penalties well these are just wrong.  Wellness programs generally incorporate health promotion and education elements.  Make sure that your organizations program covers good supportive components that will get these ‘at risk’ people to participate because they want to get well, not because their pay will be docked if they don’t!

Well People Are Happier

Happiness is about creating and responding to opportunities.  Broadening our range of positive responses to situations that help build confidence by expanding cognition and behavior.  “Positive emotions have inherent value to human growth and development and cultivating (positive emotions) will help people lead fuller lives” PEPLab

What the research into happiness is telling us is that happiness at work does need to be taken more seriously.

Unhappy and insecure employees will “withhold their best work and are simply less productive”.  It may sound like a clique but happier people do work better; help others; have more meaning in their lives – a quality that can rub off on others; are more motivated; and can achieve goals.


So the take away message for organizations is consider what is important to your employees when designing workplace wellness and work-life balance initiatives.  Oh and by the way paying them more money doesn’t add to their wellness toolbox.  The Mercer Global engagement scale puts salary only 7th out of the top 12 factors affecting job satisfaction.

Some of the suggestions I have made in this article have not been proven, through scientific rigor, to increase productivity or reduce the costs associated with unwell and unhappy employee’s, but they will go some way to reducing stress for employees; enabling employees to be more engaged and fulfilled at work; and they may be more appreciative of a caring employer.  All of these factors are likely to contribute to reduced absenteeism, reduced presenteeism, more flow and cooperation, and consequently higher productivity and engagement. Plus a better working culture and environment.

Changing the mindset from participation (being present and going through the motions but on auto pilot) to real engagement at work through program and benefit diversity, allows people to take responsibility for self and creates an organizational culture that reflects this.

What are some ways you think organizations can contribute to better workplace wellness programs?



Berry, L. L., Mirabito, A. M., & Baun, W. B. (2010). What’s the hard return on employee wellness programs? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2010/12/whats-the-hard-return-on-employee-wellness-programs/ar/1
Community Business. (2012). The State of Work-Life Balance in Hong Kong 2012 Survey
Dawson, M. (2013, July 30). Employers Can Motivate Employees to get moving. Centre for Advancing Health
Falconer, S. (2013). Nic Marks: ‘Your boss’s first duty is to make you happy’. wired.co.uk
Hong Kong Happiness Index Survey 2012
Hong Kong University Survey on Employee’s Job Satisfaction
MacDonald, J. (2013, May 2). Providing Workplace Wellness Centers Could Backfire. Centre for Advancing Health
Petchsawang, P., & Duchon, D. (2009). Measuring workplace spirituality in an Asian context. Human Resource Development International, 12(4), 459-468. doi: 10.1080/13678860903135912
Pryce-Jones, J. (2012, Nov 25). Ways to be Happy and Productive at Work, The Wall Street Journal
Welcoa. (2013). Leveraging Well-Being To Create A World Class Culture… An Expert Interview With Dr. Rosie Ward, retrieved from http://www.welcoa.org/freeresources/index.php?category=16

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