The Interesting History of Workplace Wellness

The Interesting History of Workplace Wellness

The history of workplace wellness starts with the Italian physician Bernardini Ramazzini (1633-1714) who is believed to be one of the first to write about the effects of work exposure on workers (occupational diseases) and was interested in the possibilities of taking preventative measures (Gainer, 2008) to help improve employee well-being. Half a century after Ramazzini’s death, the Industrial Revolution brought with it many new health problems and injuries due to the way work was reformulated and systematized.

In 1810, Welsh social reformer Robert Marcus Owen proposed a 10-hour work day to help protect the well-being of workforces. By 1817, he purposed a more aggressive measure — the 8-hour work day — and coined the phrase “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” (Donnachie, 2000). One of the first organizations to implement Owen’s ideal on a wide scale in the United States was the Ford Motor Company in 1914 ([Ford] Gives $10,000,000, 1914; Chalmers, 2013).

In 1832, Charles Turner Thackrah is credited for having created the first written account of the health problems of industrial workers (Gainer, 2008). Accordingly, Thackrah’s book is considered a pioneering work in the pursuit of improving employee well-being. In his book Thackrah wrote, “The evil of the employ is the incidental one of intemperance (Thackrah, 1832, p.18).” In context, I believe this quote from Thackrah is likely highlighting that employers often operate their organizations with disregard for moderating or restraining their employees’ working conditions.

These notable milestones notwithstanding, workplace wellness was generally an afterthought for organizations up until the advent of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) in the 1950s, when companies began to offer wellness interventions primarily focused on alcoholism and mental health issues (Owens, 2006). According to Reardon (1998), true workplace wellness programs did not really begin to exist until the mid-1970s. During this timeframe, there was a perceived shift in financial responsibility for health care, from government to employer. The development of worksite wellness was motivated primarily by cost containment (Reardon, 1998). It was also linked with the activities of the occupational safety and health movement (OSH) and the worksite health promotion movement (WHP), which developed in the late 1970s (DeJoy & Southern, 1993). Greiner (1987) cites the following reasons behind the emergence of worksite wellness during this period:

  • A general culture shift that promoted fitness
  • Emerging research findings that showed the cost of employees’ unhealthy habits
  • Newly formed workplace health promotion groups such as the Washington Business Group on Health and the Wellness Councils of America.

Furthermore, in 1974, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was established, which was a further signal of the increased concern for employee health. It set the minimum standards for most voluntarily established pension and health care plans in private industry to provide protection for the individuals in these plans (Call, Gerdes, & Robinson, 2009).

The Johnson & Johnson’s Live for Life program, which became known as the prototype for big corporate worksite wellness programs, was started in 1979. The program included a questionnaire and a physical assessment with the purpose of collecting information on each person’s activity levels and body fat measurements. The company then provided support to control risk behaviors — weight control, nutrition, and stress management (Pencak, 1991). 

In 1980, with the arrival of a new political administration in the United States, health promotion focus was lost at the federal level (Greiner, 1987). However, workplace wellness programs began appearing in academic literature in the early 1980s. The articles of this time were mainly discussions of the effects of physical fitness efforts on workers’ health and performance (Call, Gerdes, & Robinson, 2009). In 1982, the Journal of Occupational Health started featuring articles that looked at how workplace wellness programs could reduce absenteeism and other costs related to illness, as well as a few articles that discussed how fitness centers could potentially attract top talent (Call, Gerdes, & Robinson, 2009).

Outside EAPs, workplace wellness programs in the United States during the 1980s seem to have primarily focused on the physical aspect of health, while ignoring other health dimensions. In the late 1980s, companies started addressing issues of psychological well-being as part of a more encompassing workplace wellness strategy. In 1986, the OSH started an initiative that emphasized workers’ mental health. Its aim was addressing the issue of work-related mental health disorders (mainly focused on stress-related illness). This was followed in 1991 with another initiative, Managing Depression in the Workplace, which was launched by The National Institute of Mental Health (Reardon, 1998).

In the 1990s, the federal government launched an initiative called Healthy People 2000 that proposed that 75% of employers with 50 or more workers should offer health promotion services as a benefit (Reardon, 1998). The evidence for the advantages of worksite wellness was scarce; nonetheless, the belief that workplace health promotion brings benefits to a company by having a positive impact on employees was becoming a popular concept among managers who started supporting such programs more widely (Pencak, 1991). During this period, wellness and health promotion programs were generally divided into three levels (Pencak, 1991):

  1. Level one addressed awareness (e.g. classes, posters, health fairs)
  2. Level two was concerned with lifestyle and behavioral change (education to support habit change — these programs generally lasted up to 12 weeks)
  3. Level three targeted the environment (these programs had no time limit and encouraged the work environment to support the changes through organizational structure and increased knowledge)

In 1994, The National Survey of Worksite Health Promotion Activities found that 80% of enterprises were offering educational activities to raise their employees’ health awareness, 44% had facilities for fitness and were encouraging activities, and 30% were doing HRAs of their employees (Reardon, 1998). In 1996, Pender’s Health Promotion Model provided guidance for the development of worksite wellness programs (Reardon, 1998). The Pender Model adopted a holistic view of an individual and went beyond the physical dimension of health. It targeted reversible behaviors and gave organizations a framework to work with.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a new version of the program Healthy People 2000Healthy People 2010. The new program had a similar goal to its predecessor: it aimed for 75% of worksites with 50 or more employees to have a comprehensive health promotion plan (Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris, & Ghosh, 2011) consisting of 5 key elements: (a) health education, (b) supportive social and physical work environment, (c) integration of the program into the administrative structure, (d) related programs (e.g. assistance for workers), and (e) screening programs.

Over the past fifteen years, workplace wellness programs have seemingly taken off. These programs have moved from providing health information, counseling, and fitness delivery to using monetary rewards to incentivize employees to stay well (Wieczner, 2013). In particular, the United States has made significant strides toward ensuring the well-being of employees. With this increase in exposure, there has been an increase in attention paid by big businesses to the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of wellness programs, yet very little research exists for small and mid-sized business. Unfortunately, much of the data from large-sized organizations regarding workplace wellness cannot be generalized to SMBs due to SMBs’ smaller budgets, different business strategies and different employee considerations (Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris, & Ghosh, 2011). Furthermore, barriers still exist with SMBs to be able to offer these types of programs at scale. Small companies seem particularly challenged in offering wellness programs (McPeck, Ryan, & Chapman, 2009). According to one study, less than 7% of small businesses offer wellness programs (Carter, Gaskins, & Shaw, 2005). Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris and Ghosh (2011) describe several factors that hinder health promotion programs in small and mid-sized companies. First, there is the additional cost such programs impose on a company that might already be financially overburdened. Mandatory health and safety regulations generally take priority over voluntary health promotion programs, and as such any ideas of participatory workplace wellness programs fall by the wayside. Small companies often lack a health and safety department, which tends to be the initiator of workplace wellness programs in many larger companies. Another factor is that small companies might not offer health insurance and employee benefits that would often be the motivation for preventative programs (Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris, & Ghosh, 2011). Burke (2006) also suggests that there is generally a lack of awareness and understanding about worksite wellness in smaller companies.

There are, however, other characteristics that perhaps make wellness programs in small companies easier to deploy than they would be in large corporations. These include reduced bureaucratic demands, which give easier access to health promotion vendors; better connections between the management and workers, easier communication and, possibly, more empathy towards workers who are seen as “a part of the family” (Divine, 2005).

Little, if any, research has been done on the topic of the decision-making process in relation to the adoption of wellness programs in SMBs (Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris, & Ghosh, 2011). Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris, and Ghosh (2011) conducted a qualitative study that explored some of the factors (structural, cultural, work factors) that support the development of wellness programs in small and mid-sized companies. The participants in the study stated that they rely on brokers or health insurers for health promotion education. The main criterion for a SMB adopting a wellness program was its cost and cost-effectiveness (program cost-benefit). The employers in that study expressed that they desire information on the cost-effectiveness of the program, as well as data showing that the programs will bring the benefits they sought (e.g. reduced absenteeism). Simply summarized, high program cost and low program cost-benefit may be barriers to adopting these programs with SMBs. Employers in the study considered both direct and indirect costs (such as the cost associated with employees taking time off work to participate in the program).

According to Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris and Ghosh (2011) there are three key tactics that need to be considered when working with SMBs:

  1. Health promotion needs to be related to overall company success-related factors (usually financial success). Some of these factors include employee productivity, recruitment, and retention. These factors are more convincing to small businesses than the actual quantifiable health care cost savings.
  2. Insurers and benefits brokers should be the potential channel for expanding health promotion.
  3. Senior management and human resources should be the targets. The members of senior management are often the final decision makers, so they need to be presented with the relevant health promotion information.

More research is required on the subject of optimal design and funding of health promotion and preventive care benefits for small to mid-sized businesses. There is a lack of knowledge of the impact of workplace health promotion on small to mid-sized businesses’ bottom line, employee retention rates, and productivity levels (Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris, & Ghosh, 2011). These findings need to be conveyed to insurers, brokers, and workplace health promotion vendors and could help build the business case for worksite wellness programs.

It is important to note at least one study contradicts the findings of Hughes, Patrick, Hannon, Harris, and Ghosh (2011). Divine (2005) found that humanitarian reasons and employee-relation goals prevail over financial motives when trying to inspire SMBs to take up workplace wellness. Putting aside a SMB’s motives for workplace wellness, the available literature does generally support that SMBs rely on benefits brokers and health insurers for wellness solutions (Marquis and Long, 2000). A national study by Marquis and Long (2000) supports the assertion that SMBs generally use outside experts to pick their programs. Studies by McPeck, Ryan, and Chapman (2009) and Goetzel and Ozminkowski (2008) also support the reliance on outside vendors and the role of senior management.


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