(Part 1 of 3)
Wellness Becomes a Thing
The HR Research Institute recently finished a major study on employee financial wellness.
It’s an interesting topic during these weird financial times, so I thought I’d provide a short history of employee wellness programs in general, put financial wellness in its current context, then talk about other ways we can improve the financial well-being of more people.
If you’re not familiar with it, financial wellness is one of the newer forms of worker benefit offerings. The basic idea is that if an employee is financially unwell, then they are a lot less likely to be productive and engaged at work.
This is both an intriguing and a “no-shit-Sherlock” kind of assertion. It’s interesting (to people like me) because it’s case in which the concept of wellness is being expanded into yet another area of employee’s lives.
So, before we get into financial wellness (aka, well-being), let me lay out a brief history of employee wellness.
A Brief History of the Long Struggle to Keep Workers Fit Enough to Survive the Treadmill
The Stupidly High Costs of U.S. Healthcare
When I first started researching HR issues, wellness initiatives were fairly new (yeah, I’m getting up there), and they typically focused on physical wellness.
Back then, the idea was to distinguish between healthcare benefits, which were the status quo, and wellness benefits, which were a way to reduce healthcare costs. After all, the U.S. is—and even then was—virtually alone among so-called industrialized nations in terms of not providing universal healthcare to all its citizens. My father was a doctor and not exactly a liberal, but when I was growing up, even he thought our system was stupid and needlessly cruel.
As a result of the sheer weirdness of our U.S. health insurance system, which largely rests on the shoulders of employers, organizations have a vested interest in keeping healthcare costs low so that they are not paying as much to provide health insurance to workers.
The fact is, however, that U.S. has the most expensive healthcare system in the world on a per capita basis and gets pretty crappy results for all the money it spends. That’s not the fault of employers, however. It’s the fault of the frankly stupid way our system is set up.
In my opinion, the vast majority of voters should be mightily pissed off about this, voting out every self-serving, money-grubbing politician who is not in favor of fixing our expensive, busted system, but the majority of voters still aren’t there…yet. So it goes.
Making the Best of a Bad Hand
A lot of Americans like our employer-sponsored system of health care, but most employers surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation think our current system is so broken, expensive and usustainable that in the near future the government is going to need to step in to fix things–or at least help the current creaky system limp along.
For now, though, employers are as about as stuck with current system as the rest of us.
Although employers get tax breaks and can shift a lot of the costs to their employees, they still spend an absurd amount of money to provide that health insurance (assuming they do, of course).
So, employers have long since decided to encourage their employees to raise their level of wellness so that they, the employers, can reduce the costs of providing health insurance.
Back in the Day
When wellness benefits first emerged (the term ‘well-being’ came later), they were mostly focused on getting employees into better shape physically. This basically meant getting them into better aerobic shape (heart disease being a killer, both physically and financially) and getting them to stop poisoning themselves with legal substances (such as tobacco and alcohol) as well as the illegal ones.
So, employers started paying for, or at least contributing to, things like gym memberships and smoking cessation programs. And, they started offering financial incentives, such as lower health insurance costs, to employees if they cut down on the cigs and the booze.
It all seemed pretty obvious at the time.
Did It Work?
Maybe, sometimes. Studies differ, and success probably depends on the execution of those programs. Today Americans tend to smoke less than they did 30 years ago, but that probably has less to do with wellness benefits and more to do with government packaging warnings and restrictions on advertisements.
It hasn’t been all good news. During the same interval, Americans’ consumption of alcohol has risen and fallen, whereas obesity has generally ballooned. Of course, the global obesity epidemic (pandemic?) is driven by a lot of different factors that wellness programs have not been able to prevent.
Then Came the Mental Side of Things
Once you start pulling at the wellness thred, however, you start to see how entangled it is with other kinds of wellness, especially mental. After all, people smoke and drink not just because it feels good (getting high has deep biological roots not only in humans but other animals as well) but because they’re stressed out and suffering emotional/mental tribulations.
To get people to cut down on their smoking, drinking, and/or eating, sometimes you need to address their mental issues. And so, employers started putting greater emphasis on employee assistance plans (EAPs), addiction treatment, and eventually things like mindfulness.
And Don’t Forget the Work Environment
We shouldn’t forget about environmental wellness, either. When I first started out, ergonomics were all the rage. Personal computers had entered the workplace and suddenly people were sitting in front of screens more while clicking their keyboards and mice. This led to backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, eye-strain issues and more. There was this big push for ergonomically designed office furniture.
There was also the crappy air in office buildings where all the windows were sealed and god-knows-what chemicals were oozing out of printers, ceiling tiles, acrylic floors, etc. That’s when “sick building syndrome” became a thing.
Of course, the concern with the work environments started much earlier, when plant workers were suffering from sundry issues related repetitive stress injuries, machine accidents, chemical exposures and more. A lot of employers didn’t want to think about these things, but the combination of broken employees and union representation tended to concentrate their focus.
Social Well-being Joins the Fitness Team
If you keep pulling at that wellness thread, it’s not long until you realize there are social elements at play as well. Some of this stems from the research into employee engagement, especially by Gallup. Their studies suggested that the social environment at work also affects employees.
Of course, in retrospect, this is another one of those “no duh” moments in HR. Obviously, if you have friends at work and good relations with your boss, you’re more likely to be engaged and productive.
So sum up, your physical wellness is influenced by your work environment and your mental health, which is in turn influenced by your social well-being at work and outside of it.
Okay, so that’s my very brief history of wellness programs. In my next post, part 2 of 3, we’ll focus on another step in wellness evolution: today’s financial wellness initiatives.