Business of Well-being

The Evolution of Wellness with Laura Kirk

Corproate Wellness

Wellness is the big word in most corporate circles today; more employers are taking into cognizance the nuances of mental health and other wellness needs among employees, and what offerings employees require to be healthier and more productive. But it was not always this way, corporate wellness is seeing a major shift that will redefine health and wellbeing for employees. 

A few decades ago when the concept of wellness at work began to gain widespread traction, the idea mainly centered on adding tidbits of healthy habits to work to help save money on healthcare costs. Things like improving physical activity, aerobic exercises, and health biometrics were all essential components of corporate wellness in many organizations  These activities were mostly considered an “outside work” benefit or an afterthought and not really a core component of work. 

In the pre-pandemic era of work, much of corporate wellness revolved around conventional well-being programs that include projects like paid gym memberships, weight loss programs, and fitness programs. While many of these initiatives helped employees with some health issues, they did not push the needle forward in addressing the workplace’s deepest wellness needs. 

Laura Kirk, Director of Total Rewards at Radial, spoke in a recent episode of the Edelheit Experience about how wellness at work had evolved over the years from merely a health risk assessment to integrating the overall health and well-being of employees into the work culture. 

“At that time, we were simply focused on helping people in areas of their health they needed to improve, such as exercising more or eating better; we thought to help them know why these things are important so they could do them, and that was the birth of the health risk assessment,” Laura said

“And then we found that people weren’t doing these things, and then we added an incentive, thinking if we paid them to change these habits, they would, and we found that it wasn’t working too,” Kirk added. “Ultimately, we found that these incentives and programs were not causing any lasting change” 

They were simply not working. Wellness programs and initiatives across several organizations were not achieving the practical results employers wanted, and this is pretty much because they were not solving the wellness needs of the workforce or were not addressing wellness needs the right way. 

Laura explained how wellness was a multifactorial concept that depended on a lot of other components, which employers had not considered. How and why people make health decisions depend on their socioeconomic status, financial well-being, age, belief systems, social support, and personal experiences. If these factors are not infused into wellness decisions for people. Any health measure initiated will not yield any lasting result. 

“If you’re going to put out some kind of wellbeing program, how do you involve somebody’s social network to allow participation of other members of an employee’s social support?” Laura asked, highlighting how much an individual’s social network impacts their health choices, and how this is a crucial determinant of the success of wellbeing initiatives. 

The inefficiency of workplace wellness structures is evident in how the burden of poor well-being continues to rise in the workplace. Citing recent data from Tufts University, Jonathan Edelheit, host of the Edelheit Experience noted that the burden of most chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, had been on the rise in spite of workplace initiatives to curb these diseases. 

Laura noted that while workplace wellness programs had been addressing this burden of chronic disease in one way or another, they had not leveraged a holistic approach. In dealing with the burden of diabetes, for instance, a multidisciplinary approach is needed in the workplace, involving diet education and planning based on employees’ cultural preferences, support from a clinical pharmacist, a weight loss plan, and initiatives to tackle other risk factors for diabetes and lower its complications. A holistic approach seeks not just to help the employee take their meds regularly or achieve a particular weight, but to leverage key strategies to help the individual achieve a healthier glycemic control index. 

Laura also spoke on how the world of corporate wellness is paying closer attention to DEI. As corporate wellness began to grow, experts began to see the link between organizational culture and employee well-being. Organizations that do not reflect equity and inclusion in their policies and processes may have a higher burden of poor mental well-being and workplace stress. 

Over the years exploring the root causes of workplace stress has revealed how the issues of inequity and non-inclusion were key drivers of poor wellbeing among employees. People who are discriminated against for their beliefs, religion, race, sexual orientation, or even age may feel less valued than other members of the workforce, and in turn, more stressed—and stress remains a major risk factor for chronic diseases. 

These issues may also translate into inequitable access to health, such as poor access to fertility care for LGBTQ+ individuals or inequitable access to care based on the financial status of employees. This skewed distribution of care based on these social differences makes wellness plans less efficient, driving poor health metrics in the organization. 

“If we really want to get behavior change and we want to bring them along on a healthier journey that is fairer and more equitable, then we have to be willing to meet them where they are and understand their struggles and situations,” Laura said in describing the need to factor these personal attributes into wellness solutions.

The last two years have also added the most forceful push to corporate wellness ever seen. There’s been a huge shift in mental awareness, causing organizations to look inward and assess the mental health component of their wellness programs. Following several months of social isolation and closure of offices and workplaces, employees had to re-examine their health amid the pandemic, and whether or not to return to their employer when the restrictions ease.

This long break of sit-at-home orders.was followed by the “great resignation,” in which employers began the massive move to prioritize their health and safety. Employers were largely caught off guard as the move pointed out the weakness of corporate wellness structures to meet employee wellness needs, especially their mental well-being needs. 

More and more employers are therefore rethinking their mental health offerings and challenging the norms in corporate culture to create healthier mental well-being paradigms. Employers are now incorporating mental well-being initiatives, such as mental health counseling, meditation, and yoga classes, building stronger community support, and equipping employee assistance programs to help people achieve better mental well-being metrics. 

Corporate wellness has been on a steady evolution since its onset. More events are becoming defining moments in the evolution of wellness at work as it moves from a mundane aspect of work to the very essence of work. As employers begin to drive the needed changes in corporate wellness to build more personalized and holistic solutions, they set the stage for building highly resilient and healthier organizations. GHA

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