Businesses are continuing to look towards viable workplace wellness strategies, and these programs are increasing in popularity, despite inconclusive evidence regarding their return on investment and effectiveness. Analysts are so bullish on the growth of workplace wellness programs that the sputtering consumer wearable market is banking on their success by speculating on the opportunities being made available as large enterprises continue to expand their employee well-being programs through technology.
According to a government-funded RAND study in 2013, about one in every two American employers offers some form of initiative that promotes employee wellness (Mattke et al., 2013). Going into 2017, this saturation is probably higher. Corporate wellness stakeholders often want to know how much money they will save if they introduce or expand a wellness program for their employees. They look for hard data to support their decisions, and many decision makers continue to rely on return on investment (ROI) as a quantitative measure to gauge program efficacy. However, because proving program ROI has been elusive, it has been suggested by those in corporate wellness trade organizations that other factors should be considered when assessing the long-term benefits of these programs. As an alternative to ROI, there has been an attempt to introduce value on investment (VOI) to capture some of these program’s intangible benefits. These “intangibles” include subjective measures such as: contributions to knowledge, collaboration, innovation, presenteeism, retention and employee engagement (Hight, 2012; Norris, 2003). The contrived VOI model has basically become essential in attempting to financially justify funding and investment in most programs (Norris, 2003).
Workplace Wellness Research for Small and Mid-Size Businesses
For the most part, the primary focus of academic research regarding workplace wellness programs has been large enterprises. However, the findings of these studies are often not generalizable to companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. There is a significant and growing need for models and strategies that can benefit smaller organizations. This need is especially significant considering that a majority of employees in the American workforce serve small and mid-sized companies (McPeck, Ryan, & Chapman, 2009). My recent study “Workplace Wellness Strategies for Small Businesses” attempted to fill the knowledge gap that exists in this area. My purpose was to determine what common strategies are being used by small to mid-sized business (SMBs) that had both effective and viable workplace wellness programs.
Workplace Wellness Strategies in Small and Mid-Size Businesses (SMBs)
Four organizations participated in the study: a beverage distributor, a boutique hotel, a general contracting firm and a service-based company. I conducted in-depth interviews and studied company artifacts. The data collected was compared for similarities, differences and patterns (a comparative case study approach), and data analysis was performed according to the standards of thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This process provided me the opportunity to uncover and better understand the commonalities of effective and viable SMB workplace wellness strategies that were demonstrated by these four companies.
My findings found 19 strategies used by these effective programs. Five overreaching concepts are identified that helped organize these strategies:
- Company culture
One of the common characteristics (“concepts”) of the programs studied was their ability to be innovative. The positive company culture within the businesses themselves was another commonality of successful programs. The employee-centric concept referred to the company’s desire to care for the well-being of its employees. All companies that participated in the study also worked proactively to create healthier work environments and provide healthier options for their employees. Finally, the concept of altruism referred to the company’s inherent desire to help others, and included the presence of a selfless leader running the workplace wellness program.
These five primary concepts each had corresponding strategies presented as themes. For instance, innovation was connected with non-traditional approaches, constant iteration and refinement, ideas that were internal to the company, thoughtful use of technology and the “fail fast” concept (often found in lean methodology). Company culture presented themes that include employee influence and involvement, authenticity and leadership that did not directly get involved (in program design), but instead provided autonomy to the right people within the business to run the programs effectively. The concept of employee-centric got expressed through various holistic approaches to employee well-being, starting with the employee’s well-being as a foundation (in contrast to considering economic motives), as well as through shouldering the financial burden of employee health care costs and tailoring their wellness approach to the needs of the employees. Concern for the external and internal corporate environment was shown in themes that described the designation of physical space for well-being considerations, company community involvement and the provision of healthy options for the employees. Altruism related to a selfless program leader, appreciation of program feedback and a program budget that was based largely on recommendations rather than mandates.
Why is this SMB Workplace Wellness Study Important?
I am proud of this study and believe it provides new insights into the characteristics of successful workplace wellness strategies. While some of the themes that emerged will feel familiar to my contemporaries, several rather surprising findings were identified as well. A better understanding of these factors — combined with validation of the more common strategies already well-established — this study gives SMBs programs a new, unique map to improve their workplace wellness strategies. What I have documented is a set of strategies that transcends the cookie cutter advice commonly disseminated by workplace wellness providers (generally tailored for big business) because their motive is to move large corporate clients into their sales funnel.
A poignant example of this is a theme that surprised me: that some of the most successful program ideas were internal. This is contrary to the established belief that workplace wellness ideas get cascaded down from vendors and brokers that offer employee well-being services at scale (Hughes et al., 2011). Although my professional role is working for a provider (Active Wellness), my study was conducted as a doctoral candidate, and in taking an unbiased look at these programs the data suggests health promotion vendors (catering to big businesses) might not be the optimal providers of workplace wellness strategies to SMBs. Another interesting assertion I make is challenging the common wisdom that successful programs rely on involvement from leadership. Historically, it has been generally advised that managers should personally promote wellness initiatives, act as role models and engage with employees in wellness (O’Boyle & Harter, 2014). My study, however, did not support this established view. In the case of the four companies that participated, wellness thrived in environments where leadership passed the responsibility for wellness programs to the right person within the organization. That person was given the autonomy to implement the program in a viable way based on the culture of the organization. Intuitively, one might posit managers within SMBs might not always be the best qualified to lead by example. Running SMBs often is fairly stressful and requires managers to play multiple strategic roles. Therefore, these individuals in many cases should not necessarily champion wellness initiatives if they are already struggling to maintain their own wellness due to high levels of stress (Swaby, 2016).
My sincerest hope is that the findings of this study break new ground and can fuel a positive discussion about the importance of creating healthy workplaces and supporting employees in small and mid-size business — so these businesses can support employee well-being as effectively as larger enterprises. If you would like to learn more about this study on workplace wellness strategies, please feel free to reach out and/or you can view the study in its entirety over at the International Journal of Workplace Health Management by clicking here.
Sources & further reading:
Braun, V., and Clarke, V. (2006), “Using thematic analysis in psychology”, Qualitative Research in Psychology, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 77–101.
Hight, C. (2012,), “Move from ROI to VOI” Institute for Organization Management, available at http://institute.uschamber.com/move-from-roi-to-voi (accessed 30 June 2016).
Hughes, M. C., Patrick, D. L., Hannon, P. A., Harris, J. R., and Ghosh, D. L. (2011), “Understanding the decision-making process for health promotion programming at small to midsized businesses”, Health Promotion Practice, Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 512.
Lincoln, Y. S., and Guba, E. G. (1985), Naturalistic inquiry. SAGE Publications, Newbury Park.
Mattke, S., Liu, H., Caloyeras, J. P., Huang, C. Y., Van Busum, K. R., Khodyakov, D., and Shier, V. (2013), “Workplace wellness programs study: Final report”, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA.
McPeck, W., Ryan, M., and Chapman, L. S. (2009), “Bringing wellness to the small employer”, American Journal of Health Promotion, Vol. 23. No. 5, pp. 1–10.
Norris, D. M. (2003), “Value on investment in higher education”, EDUCAUSE Research Bulletin, No. 18, pp. 1–13, available at https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erb0318.pdf
O’Boyle, E. and Harter, J. (2014). “Why your workplace wellness program isn’t working”, Gallup Business Journal, available at http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/168995/why-workplace-wellness-program-isn-working.aspx (accessed 5 July 2016).
Swaby, S. (2016). “Leadership wellness: The conversation no one is having”, The Good Men Project, available at http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/leadership-wellness-the-conversation-no-one-is-having-part-1-snsw