My first corporate job was for a life insurance company in Hartford Connecticut. Since I’d never worked for a big company, I had no idea what to expect. The on-site cafeteria and gym were really convenient. The bowling alley and the squash courts - was this typical?
Workplace well-being is not a new phenomenon or trend. There are many stories of companies that developed programs to look after their employees dating back to the late 1800s. Companies such as Pullman and National Cash Register established recreational and fitness programs for their employees.
From the 1930s to the 1950’s, unions played a big role in protecting the health and safety of workers. Regulated working hours, safety and worker’s compensation programs were all initiated. In the 60’s and 70’s, the emphasis on physical fitness took off, with many large corporations building onsite fitness facilities.
In a recent interview with George Pfeiffer, we discussed the evolution of workplace health promotion programs. George told of the premature death of the Chairman of the Xerox Corporation and the Presidential Committee on Health Education caused by a heart attack at the age of 61. “Fitness programs were focused on preventing heart attacks in the middle age white male executives.”
When I first came into this field about a dozen years ago, the primary focus was on risk and cost reduction. Health care costs were exploding and employers, as the primary source of health insurance, were bearing most of that cost. The chief goals of workplace health promotion programs were defined as:
- Assess health risks
- Reduce health risk factors that can be reduced; and
- Promote socially and environmentally healthy lifestyles.
The predominance of programs for the past decade have focused on physical health – physical activity, healthy eating, and eliminating tobacco use. The idea being that by modifying these health risks, there will be lower consumption of health care.
For all these efforts, it appears that the US population isn’t getting much healthier. There may be a number of reasons for this. While most large organizations offer well-being programs, the majority of workers in the US work in small businesses. Smaller businesses are less likely to offer health insurance and only 53% of small firms offer well-being programs.
Today’s well-being programs have evolved significantly. The focus is less on cost and risks, and more on creating a supportive environment that cares for the whole person. The Gallup model for well-being has contributed to this evolution. Dee Edington, who has studied and written extensively about workplace health, proposes creating a value of caring, that measures how organizations care for their employees and the extent to which employees feel cared for. Caring is embedded into culture, policies, and measurements. Here are a few examples:
- offer personal and professional development opportunities
- provide and celebrate meaningful work opportunities
- share meaningful results with employees
- develop a shared values, purpose, mission, vision with employees
- conduct on-boarding- and exit interviews, and an emphasis on retention
- provide for promotion from within and help with clear career paths
- provide for autonomy at the employee work station
- provide for the physical, mental and social comfort for the employee.
Well-being, like corporate profit, will be an outcome of creating thriving workplaces where individuals feel cared for and supported.