Switching The Wellness Gears

Switching The Wellness Gears

The need to adopt wellness and care for employees' well-being is now on a war footing by a majority of the enterprises. That ROIs in employee wellness programmes have a direct impact on productivity has seldom been acknowledged in the past.


My memory flashes back to the eighties when I would hear my father (a radiologist) occasionally sharing stories with us on certain individuals failing the health test. In those days, public enterprises like SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited) mandated a health checkup for any new hire in their own hospitals. If the new hires failed the test, they would stand to forfeit their offer letter. The rationale was simple – a healthy workforce would be more productive and also lower the healthcare costs incurred by the enterprise.


Over the years, enterprises have oscillated in their focus on the health and wellness of employees and have largely been centred on reducing cost, increasing market share, and reaping profits. Now that we are in the midst of a severe, long-drawn and contagious pandemic, enterprises have woken up to switch on the spotlight on employee wellness programmes. Employees all across the globe are trying their best to cope up with the new realities of social distancing, remote work, managing household chores, and attending to the family including the children and the elderly.


Lessons from the past


However, it is interesting to note that wellness has its roots in history and is not a recent coinage. The Ayurveda rooted in the Indian tradition focusses on nutritional, exercise, social interaction and hygiene needs to be combined with Yoga and meditation and dates back to 1500 BC, while the traditional Chinese Medicine in 2000 BC, influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, lays emphasis on a holistic perspective to achieving health and wellbeing by cultivating acupuncture, herbal medicine, and qi gong. The Greek physician, Hippocrates mentioned that disease is a product of diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors, while the ancient Romans developed a public health system to prevent the spreading of germs and maintain a healthy population.


In 1817, the Welsh social reformer, Robert Marcus Owen was the first to recommend an eight-hour workday, coining the phrase “eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”


Moving on, the physician Halbert L. Dunn presented his idea of “high level wellness” in the 1960s, and Dr. John Travis, influenced by Dunn, opened the world’s first wellness centre in California in the 1970s. He also published a wellness assessment tool - The Wellness Inventory (1975) and The Wellness Workbook (1977) which are in use today. Corporate wellness programmes have its origin in Henry Kaiser who built a hospital for his construction employees in 1933, while the first Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) were launched in the 1950s to combat the growing problems of alcoholism and mental illness.


Shortcomings in wellness initiatives


Even prior to the pandemic, many global enterprises invested and offered wellness programmes in conjunction with reputed wellness providers. While employees were absorbing these offerings there were noticeable shortcomings in the design and implementation of these programmes.


♦ Low and uninspiring communication on wellness programmes


♦ Limited offerings in the packages – E.g how to cope with anxiety or hypertension may not find a mention


♦ Missing culture to openly talk and address ailments related to stress, depression etc.


♦ Poor change management with HR functions busy with routine administrative tasks


♦ Budgetary pressures to accommodate wellness programmes


♦ Limited coverage on critical ailments affecting employees (according to MetLife research released in April 2020, 65% of workers say that they do not feel that their employer offers benefits or programmes that help support or improve their mental wellbeing)


♦ Low usage by employees for wellness programmes (E.g. significant reminders need to be sent to employees about enrolment in EAPs. As per 2019 data from the Society for Human Resource Management, only 10% of employees use EAPs)


♦ Non-availability of channels for employees to speak up about their wellness challenges


♦ Minuscule share for financial, nutritional and emotional offerings


♦ Absence of coaches and training programmes for managers to support employees on wellness


With the spread of the pandemic and substantial casualties, most of the enterprises have been compelled to hop on to the bandwagon of employee wellness programmes. Some of the underlying reasons include stress, work pressure, isolation, minimal social interactions, physical and behavioural disorders and low immunity. A CNN report mentioned that the Disaster Distress Helpline operated by the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recorded a 338% increase in call volume in March 2020 as compared to February 2020. The World Health Organisation has estimated that depression and anxiety bled the global economy up to $1 trillion in 2019. In their study in Gallup conducted in 2018 on 75000 fulltime employees, Ben Wigert and Sangeeta Agrawal mentioned that 23% employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes costing employer’s money in lost productivity, low engagement, and increased errors.


To overcome these anomalies, enterprises have started talking about developing and strengthening resilience, demonstrating empathy, and offering care to their employees. For instance,


♦ 53% of 256 employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions reported providing special emotional and mental health programmes for their workforce owing to the pandemic.


♦ Target has added online resources to help employees improve their wellbeing


♦ Starbucks rolled out therapy benefits for its workers in April 2020.


♦ Price Waterhouse Coopers has launched wellbeing coaching sessions where employees can reach out to a professional coach to discuss anything that may be causing them stress.


The Indian context


From an Indian context, there is an uptick in enterprises revisiting their wellness programmes and expanding the reach and variety of wellness offerings to the employees. Lijee Philip, in a report published in The Economic Times (April 3 2020), shares the example of Johnson & Johnson who have implemented a telemedicine programme to help employees and their families deal with concerns related to mental and physical health.



With global supply chains broken and financial uncertainty looming, enterprises have a high stake in embracing employee wellness programmes and embed them with a strategic priority.



Leaders in enterprises need to take the big leap and talk more openly and frequently about employee wellness. They can change the workplace culture by including details on wellness in their presentations or annual reports which are shared with the employees and the shareholders. The analytics and the data on wellness which is currently low-key has to be brought in the forefront.


Stephanie Johnson from Tableau in a blog titled, Measuring Employee Wellness during Covid19 – What business Leaders need Know (April 2020), states that 31% of companies are not using any data analytics to inform and drive corporate health and wellbeing strategy. She emphasises the importance of measuring basic biometric data, health habits (exercise, diet, sleep, weight, alcohol and tobacco use), absenteeism data, sentiment analysis and pulse survey data which will morph into robust wellness programmes. In the same blog, she cites a reference to Prudential Financial which conducts Health Risk Assessments (HRA) together with employee engagement surveys, to improve healthcare offerings, point employees to existing resources, and create benchmarks for future follow-ups.


The offerings in wellness programmes could be broadened with inclusion of nutrition, sleep, personalised wellness etc. to make them attractive for the employees. Redesigning workplaces, conducting virtual workout sessions, building wellness apps, strengthening ventilation systems, monitoring air quality and air conditioning by establishing thresholds, developing ergonomics guidelines, onsite health clinics and advocating use of non-pollutant sanitation products would be the other essential components to usher in meaningful employee wellness programmes. Nicole Dunn in an article titled, The Future of Workplace Wellness in Forbes, states that the corporate wellness market alone is projected to be worth $97.4 billion by 2027 growing at a compounding annual growth rate of 6.8%.


The need to adopt wellness and care for employees’ well-being is now on a war footing by a majority of the enterprises. The masked fact that returns on investment in employee wellness programmes have direct impact on productivity and revenue has seldom been acknowledged in the past. The pandemic has woken up enterprises to reset their business priorities on their most valuable and strategic asset – employees and their wellness.



Amarpreet Bhamra is a business process management professional with 20 years of work experience in organisations such as Ernst Young, AP Moller Maersk, Tech Mahindra Business Services, Synchrony Financial, TATA Business Support Services and GE Capital International Services. Amarpreet holds a double post graduate in Communications and English respectively. He has an Advanced Diploma in Financial Management from Indian School of Business Management and Administration.


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