Has Wellness Been Hijacked?

Wellness is a great concept. It brings happiness into health and encourages a truly holistic approach to life. Wikipedia defines wellness as a healthy balance of the mind-body and spirit that results in an central feeling of wellness. It sounds like exactly what every one is looking for. But when you begin to talk about corporate wellness, or workplace wellness, all life goes out of the concept. Total solutions, disease management and health evaluation do not inspire visions of enjoying life and living it to the full. They begin from the assumption that sickness is here to stay and needs to be discovered, managed and controlled but can never be healed.

The wellness industry is growing phenomenally fast. Wellness guru, Paul Zane Pilzer, has labeled it the next trillion dollar industry. But wellness has two different faces. On the one hand there are the small employers – people working from home or in small centers selling all kinds of wellness products and services at a speed of growth that is escalating rapidly. On the other hand corporate wellness is also exploding but in a very different direction.

The baby boomers who are driving the popular wellness revolution have been described as the first generation to refuse to accept the inevitability of death. They are actively looking for ways to prevent aging, stay healthy into old age and enjoy themselves more than ever before after retirement. This is a radical departure from current notions of old age, which are often dominated by pictures of sickness, frailty and suffering.

The employers have been largely forced to take on wellness. This is partly through legislative pressure, with countless countries introducing laws to make employers liable for stress-related sickness in their workers. It is also monetarily motivated, as research has repeatedly determined the enormous costs of absenteeism (and increasingly of presenteeism as well).

Whereas the baby boomers are actively looking for new solutions and new lifestyles the employers are struggling to organize largely traditional and mainstream health systems, such as doctors, nurses, insurance and screening systems. The concern is that the traditional health system does not have solutions for the problems that people are handling.

Nobody ever went to see a doctor to get happy, because a doctor doesn’t have any clue how to make people happy. And countless stress-related health problems are described as chronic diseases, which means that they last for a very long time – or maybe for the rest of your life – because there is no medical cure. Counseling is a common offering in employers for emotional problems, but whilst it may offer a useful pressure valve it is not a powerful treatment for stress, unhappiness or depression.

Imagine walking into a company where the workers are happy, healthy, full of inspiration, fit, love working, have meaningful family lives, active social lives, and enjoyable relationships at work and in their community. That kind of company would be a pleasure to work in and bound to be efficacious because people would be working to their optimum capacity.

So can we set up a system of true wellness that will serve the development of the employers and their workers and will pay for itself because of the advantages that both sides will gain?

First of all we have to face the fact that we can’t place all the responsibility into the hands of the current health system. Rates of Absenteeism, stress, depression, the very roots of the wellness revolution, have not been solved by the current system. If they had been we wouldn’t have this revolution, we would all be much more well. So we need to look elsewhere for solutions.

We also cannot rely on makeshift feel-great wellness offerings, such as the onsite massage group which visits the office once a month or the wellness day that raises awareness for a little while but leaves most people unaffected. They are easy to organize but have little or no real effect on employee wellness.

Business needs are different than individual needs and many of the new small wellness employers that are springing up simply don’t have the capacity to serve the corporate market. However it is in the best interest of both employers and workers to discover and advance systems of health and wellness that really work – that benefit people to be happy, handle stress, love working, and to have sufficient energy to go home at the end of the day and enjoy their family and social life. So far the corporate world has hijacked the concept of wellness and turned it into a modern version of occupational health. It is time to raise the vision and find out how to make truly healthy, happy workplaces where people thrive.

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Make safety a key concern when organizing physical exercise in your workplace.

An accident or injury will not “sell” the program and may end up costing the company. This section will assist you in taking the necessary steps to avoid an accident or injury.

Points to Consider

Hiring Certified Professionals

Hire professionally certified instructors to lead fitness classes (whether on or offsite) or to run workplace lunch and learn sessions.  It’s also prudent to ask the instructor for references.

When you hire instructors, make sure that your insurance protects both the instructor and your company.

Risk Management

Whether we like it or not, liability is a problem these days.

Risk management plans need not be complicated or expensive. By way of example, part of the plan may require that workers complete fitness appraisals and sign statements accepting the possible risks involved in physical exercise. It pays to be prepared. Safety and emergency policies and procedures decrease the risk of loss both to individuals and to your company.

Ask workers to sign a waiver when participating in both worksite and offsite activities. For liability reasons, workers must be aware of the risks involved in participating in the exercise and know that they are waiving their right to sue.

The employee ought to not be asked to sign the waiver just before the exercise. The waiver may be invalid if workers state that they didn’t totally know the risks.

Other Safety Tips

Here’s a list of some other safety tips to keep in mind when organizing physical exercise.

Look at the environment where workers are active:

• Sidewalks ought to be clear of ice and snow, away from falling debris or snow, and have clearly marked curbs and safe crosswalks.
• Stairwells ought to be well-lit and in great condition and have handrails and safety features, so that workers are not locked out of floors.
• Fitness facilities ought to have proper flooring, great ventilation, and access to water and an emergency phone.

Provide medical evaluation for workers participating in activities:

• PAR-MEDX for Pregnancy

Below are some other valuable safety factors:

• First-aid kit and automated external defibrillator on site.
• Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in place and practised.
• Commercial grade fitness equipment (not donated, “hand me down” equipment).
• Documented equipment inspection and maintenance schedule.
• Orientation of equipment and programs done by certified professional with a physical exercise background.

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Workplace Physical Activity Programs: Keys to Success

To make a difference in the lives of your fellow workers, you first need to understand that getting active is not only a matter of choice. Some things are within our individual control, but others are molded by the people and circumstances in which we live and work.

It‘s Easier to Be Active When…

• We know what to do and have the confidence, skills and opportunity to do it.
• It’s fun. “Working out” at the fitness center does not appeal to everyone. Activities need to reflect what people enjoy.
• Our friends, family or co-workers are active with us (or at least support us).
• We feel safe, thanks to well-lit streets or stairways.
• Sidewalks, walking/biking trails, parks and gyms are nearby.
• We have money to pay for equipment, instruction or memberships.
• We can walk, bike or take public transit to work.
• Active choices such as taking the stairs, having stretch breaks at gatherings and heading outside at lunchtime are “normal” in the workplace.
• Managers support and recognize employee efforts. Better yet, they take part.
• We can juggle our work hours to fit in physical exercise.

Think about how you could set up some of these conditions in your workplace. By taking these steps, you’ll increase the likelihood that workers both want and are able to be active during the workday.

Workplace physical exercise pushes that focus only on individuals have limited success. Research shows that reaching people in various ways gives the best chance of long-term success.

A plan directed at multiple echelons is also called an “ecological approach.”

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Workplace Physical Activity Programs: Types of Evaluation

The sort of assessment you choose is dependent upon when you do it and the kind of information you collect.

This section outlines when to use three types: formative, process and summative evaluations.

During the Design Stage

Use formative evaluations in the planning stages to see that your program is based on solid information. These evaluations also help you to advance effective and appropriate materials and procedures.

Examples of formative evaluations include:

• records of management commitments to the program
• employee interest surveys
• workplace environmental assessments
• pre-testing of program materials

During Your Initiative

A process assessment is used when the initiative is underway. These evaluations help you:

• track what is going well and what isn’t (and how to revise your program)
• find out if you are reaching the workers you want to reach
• describe the initiative to others
• monitor who is participating in the initiative

During or Following Your Initiative

Summative evaluations take place when the initiative is already in place or completed. Use this sort of assessment to measure what workers like about the initiative and what could be improved.

All three types of evaluations have their place. The assessment you choose is dependent upon the time and monetary resources you have available.

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Workplace Physical Activity Programs: Evaluation Guide

What Do You Wish to Achieve?

Think about why you’re evaluating and what your assessment is going to measure.

If you’re trying to find out whether initiative has been efficacious, see if you stuck to your mission statement and met your objectives.

If you do not have a mission statement or objectives, agree with management and your employee Company Wellness Committee how your organization will track success.

By way of example, you can track success by changes in:

• Physical measures (e.g., strength, flexibility, waist circumference of workers).
• Psychological measures (e.g., employee morale, satisfaction levels, stress levels).
• Productivity measures (e.g., decline in absenteeism rates, increased employee productivity).

Thinking About workers

If you’re considering making improvements to the initiative, consider whether the initiative is still relevant and appropriate for workers. Find out if there are any obstacles to participation in the program or to participation in physical exercise during the workday.

As workers are the ones participating in the program, it’s valuable to give them a chance to offer feedback on the physical exercise initiative.

Choosing an Evaluation Method

Decide on your assessment method. Both measurable results (e.g., absenteeism rates or questionnaire responses) and descriptive results (e.g., one-on-one interviews or focus groups) can be used to evaluate. The method you choose will hinge upon the time and funding available and what you want to measure.

Deciding How to Do the Evaluation

Plan when and where you will do your assessment (and who will be evaluated). For more information, read the “Types of Evaluations” section on this website.
You might want to pilot test your assessment (e.g., with members of the Company Wellness Committee) before sending it out to workers. The employee Company Wellness  Committee might also wish to evaluate the initiative’s planning process.

Doing the Evaluation

• Compare your results to baseline information (i.e., assessment results from before the launch of your initiative). If you do not have this information, save your assessment results to compare with later results. You can also look at other information you may have, such as employee satisfaction survey results.
• Analyze and share meaningful and easy-to-be aware of results with management and workers.
• Evaluation results can be used to better the current physical exercise program and/or to advance new pushes in future.

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Workplace Physical Activity Programs: Employee Interest Survey

To succeed in encouraging physical exercise during the workday, you must find out what workers need and want. They are the people whose behavior you are trying to impact, so it’s vital to be aware of their needs and gain their support.

The Employee Interest Survey

Ask workers questions that let you assess such key characteristics as age, sex, social relationships, family responsibilities and current physical exercise participation.

It’s valuable to know this information so that your physical exercise initiative meets employees’ needs. Workers will not take part in something they’re not interested in.

Ask workers what they want, and then implement changes that fit with their needs and working conditions. By way of example, workers may not wish to do activities that make them sweat, because they do not want to shower at work.

Ask workers what the company could do to make it easier for them to be more physically active during the workday. If there’s a common behavior throughout your organization, a single change could affect a lot of people.

By way of example, suppose a big group shows interest in biking to work. They may want to shower and change after their commute. You might give priority to installing workplace showers and changing facilities. Secure bike storage might be valuable as well.

If you’re launching a program that requires going outside, begin in the spring. By the time winter arrives, participation is already a habit.

Involving workers is key to increasing physical exercise participation rates. People are more willing to take part in and support physical exercise pushes when they are involved in decision making.

The following tips will help you produce your own employee interest survey:

• Keep it short (no longer than 10 minutes to complete).
• Make sure workers know why you are doing the survey.
• Rather than using all open-ended questions, which can be long and tough to analyze, ask people to choose from a drop-down list of possible responses.
• Ask for comments and suggestions in one open-ended question at the end.
• Make it confidential and anonymous. Do not request information that may identify a person.
• If you’re including a list of possible programs or environmental changes, be sure your workplace has the facilities and resources to offer them.

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Workplace Physical Activity Programs: Committees and Opportunities

Workplace Physical Activity Programs: Forming an Employee Committee

Although support from the top is essential to a efficacious initiative, support from other workers is also valuable.

Once you get the go-ahead from management, identify others who are interested in the project and form a Company Wellness  Committee to help determine the next steps. Depending on the size of your workplace and the amount of employee time management is willing to contribute, this Company Wellness  Committee may be advisory or may plan and carry out the initiative.

The Company Wellness Committee could include workers from human resources, occupational health and safety and finance. It’s also a great idea to involve employee from other areas who have an interest in promoting physical exercise. Terms of reference will define the boundaries of the project. By way of example, it’s valuable for the Company Wellness  Committee to have clearly defined and understood tasks. Possible tasks include the following:

• Assessing your workplace environment
• Carrying out an employee interest survey.
• Developing a mission statement and objectives.
• Writing a physical exercise or wellness policy declaring the organization’s commitment to physical exercise.
• Brainstorming program ideas.
• Promoting, communicating and marketing the initiative.
• Coordinating specific activities.
• Deciding how the initiative will be evaluated.
• Continually assessing what is or isn’t working and adjusting the plan.

Prior to making plans to bolster physical exercise during the workday, it’s valuable to find out what is “doable” in your workplace.

You do not want to raise employee expectations by offering something that’s impossible due to funding or space limits. By way of example, it’s not realistic to suggest putting in a fitness facility if there’s no space for it. Be open, however, to creative ways around limitations.

Workplace Physical Activity Programs: Finding out What’s Possible in Your Workplace

Check with recreation departments or fitness facilities for maps of the local walking trails or underground pedways. Great walking trails may be right around the block from your workplace.

Below are some questions to help you assess your workplace:

• What facilities or opportunities does your work space provide that make it easier to be physically active during the workday? By way of example, do you have stairs, bike racks, showers, space for a fitness facility, factory walking lanes?
• What nearby facilities or opportunities could workers use to be more physically active during the workday? Are you close to sidewalks, walking trails, community centres, bike lanes for active commuting and/or exercise facilities?
• What resources are available?
• Can the initiative access funds, personnel, space, equipment, facilities?
• What is the structure of your company? By way of example, consider employee size, working hours, number of sites, unusual shifts, length of lunch breaks and ability to use flex time.

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Workplace Physical Activity Programs: Gaining Upper Management Support

Gaining management support is essential to the success of a physical exercise initiative.

Whether the changes you’d like to make involve the work environment, central policies or specific programs, successfully launching your ideas is dependent upon management support.

Support from management is essential for three reasons:

• You need their agreement to involve workers in a workplace initiative.
• When management pays attention to and supports initiative, workers also view the initiative as worthwhile.
• Upper Management has the power to give work time and money to support the initiative.

It’s valuable to keep management involved throughout a physical exercise initiative, but at three points you’ll need support for:

• An central concept, including a go-ahead to assess what workers want to do within the limitations of your workplace environment.
• A detailed plan (based on the assessment above) coupled with resources to carry out the plan.
• Analyzing the initiative to better it along the way or to advocate for continuing or expanding the initiative.

Approaching Upper Management

Prior to approaching management to gain initial support for promoting physical exercise during the workday, do your homework.

• Prepare a company case clearly outlining how the company will benefit by promoting physical exercise during the workday.
• List the individual, social and corporate advantages of physical exercise and the advantages of being active during the workday.
• Present some basic ideas about what the program could include. See the Success Stories and Ideas sections on this website to highlight what other workplaces have done.

Expect questions such as the following from management:

• How will this help our company?
• How can we innervate workers to take part?
• How much will it cost to run this program or bring about this change?
• How will we know a year from now whether or not this was a meaningful use of time and resources?

Ask managers about the types of activities they would support. Often managers have their own ideas they would like to see acted on to better the workplace.

Remember to include middle managers when gaining support for your initiative. They can be very helpful when you need volunteers to lead teams in corporate physical exercise challenges.

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Employee Health and Wellness Programs: Focus on Fitness Initiatives

Benefits of Fitness Initiatives


Exercise reduces weight, lowers risks of heart attack and stroke, helps to control blood pressure and diabetes, and improves mood. Studies increasingly show that exercise may also help reduce the occurrence of certain types of cancer. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently documented another major advantage: exercise improves the health of the nation’s medical care expenditures.3 According to the CDC, physically active individuals incur $865 less per year in medical costs than inactive individuals.


Dr. Michael Moore, vice president and chief medical director at Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, maintains that exercise is the most effective tool in health maintenance. “If you could prescribe exercise in a pill, it would be the number-one prescribed treatment in the world,” he said. In step with Dr. Moore’s prescription, nearly one-third of U.S. companyes help staff members pay for gym memberships, according to an Associated Press report. Subsidizing gym memberships is just one way businesses promote active lifestyles.


Popular Fitness Initiatives:


  1. Allow access to on- and off- worksite gyms and recreational activities before, during, and after work hours.
  2. Offer and promote participation in after work recreation or leagues.
  3. Offer cash incentives or decreased insurance costs for participation in physical activity and/or weight management or maintenance activities.
  4. Offer shower and/or changing facilities onsite.
  5. Offer outdoor exercise areas such as fields and trails for worker use.
  6. Offer bicycle racks in safe, convenient, and accessible locations.
  7. Offer onsite fitness opportunities, such as group classes or personal training.
  8. Offer an onsite exercise facility.
  9. Create initiatives that have strong social support systems and incentives, such as:
  10. • Buddy or team physical activity goals
  11. • Initiatives that involve workers and family
  12. • Initiatives to promote physical activity, such as pedometer walking challenges
  13. • Explore discounted or subsidized memberships at local health clubs, recreation centers, or YMCAs
  14. Offer flexible work hours to allow for physical activity during the day.
  15. Support physical activity breaks during the workday, such as stretching or walking.
  16. Host walk-and-talk meetings.
  17. Map out onsite trails or nearby walking routes and destinations.
  18. Have staff members map out their own biking or walking route to and from work.
  19. Post motivational signs at elevators and escalators to promote stair usage.
  20. Offer exercise/physical fitness messages and information to staff members.
  21. Offer or support recreation leagues and other physical activity events onsite or in the community.
  22. Begin worker activity clubs such as walking or bicycling clubs.
  23. Offer onsite child care facilities to facilitate physical activity.
  24. Sponsor a bike to work day and reward staff members who participate.
  25. Create a box and solicit fitness and health tips.


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Wellness in the Workplace: Who has the expertise?


When it comes to working wellness into your workforce, you want someone who knows the ins and outs of health promotion, and who can counsel staff members and provide primary care – all within the context of the current regulatory and legal environment.


AAOHN’s survey reported that more than half of staff members (61 percent) want to receive health and wellness information from a healthcare professional, such as a consultant or an worksite occupational health nurse (OHN), compared to pamphlets or brochures (18 percent) or human resources staff (15 percent).


OHNs can develop, implement and evaluate components of work site Employee Health and Wellness Programs such as testing initiatives, exercise/fitness courses, Stress Management Programs, smoking cessation, nutrition and weight control initiatives, and chronic illness management initiatives. Plus, OHNs can help staff members navigate through complicated health plans and may even serve as a triage point between staff members and their personal healthcare providers.


Employees might refrain from seeing their healthcare provider when it means time away from work, inconvenient parking, waiting time in the office and co-pays. In situations where staff members are under treatment for chronic diseases like heart disease, worksite nurses can routinely monitor risk factors such as blood pressure or cholesterol on a regular basis.


It’s often easier for an worker to ask an worksite nurse for information about symptoms or prescription medication than it is to schedule a follow-up visit to a personal healthcare provider. Benefits realized by employers include enhanced worker morale and retention, a recruitment advantage, increased productivity and decreased time away from work.


In businesses with a safety department, the OHN can evaluate and address work-related health issues, including participation in workstation evaluations to correct potential ergonomic problems, and proactively addressing muscle strains by developing stretching initiatives and involving staff members in leading stretches.

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