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How corporate well-being programs can help employees — and boost profits, too

More firms are investing in well-being programs to boost productivity and help employees strike a work/life balance.

Garrett Hoover jogs on the Race Street Pier under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on Monday, September 28, 2020.  Hoover is a Technology Consultant Manager for Deloitte Consulting and uses the company's wellness stipend on race entries.
Garrett Hoover jogs on the Race Street Pier under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on Monday, September 28, 2020. Hoover is a Technology Consultant Manager for Deloitte Consulting and uses the company's wellness stipend on race entries.Read more Yong Kim

Garrett Hoover enjoys working out. He was wary of taking a job in consulting at Deloitte, knowing that, pre-COVID-19 at least, it meant extensive travel and possibly limited personal time.

He quickly learned, though, that the company offered a wellness program that not only encouraged him to take time for physical and mental health but also helped pay for it. All employees are entitled to a program 50% match, up to $500 a year.

“Prior to COVID, I used the well-being subsidy for obstacle course racing — Tough Mudders or Spartan Races,” said Hoover, 30, an eight-year Deloitte manager who lives in the Kensington section of the city. “Now, I use the subsidy to cut back on the cost of playing golf.”

Hoover also took in the firm’s online wellness courses about sleep, stress reduction, nutrition, and setting boundaries between work and family time.

Almost half of all U.S. worksites offered some type of wellness program, a federal study found in 2017. In 2019, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that more than eight out of 10 large companies offered such programs, compared with about a quarter of smaller companies.

While programs differ, many include three components: screening for health risks, screening, lifestyle modification, and disease management, said Harry Liu, a senior policy researcher with the RAND Corp. Some provide clinics at the job.

“A program’s success really depends on a lot of different things, including the motivation, program design, and intervention intensity,” Liu said. “The best programs are those that employers design to meet employees’ needs and integrate into their workplace culture as part of their business operation, rather than something used to just cut costs or increase productivity.”

Deloitte’s program focuses on body, mind, purpose, and financial health, said Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer. The program’s wide range includes yoga and self-defense classes, corporate wellness fairs, financial advice, mental health help, and onsite medical care. The program is highly personal for Fisher.

“I’d been with the firm for 21 years, and experienced burnout to the point where I woke up one day and couldn’t get out of bed or engage in life or work in any meaningful way,” she recalled. “That was the moment I had to step back and take some time off to get healthy.”

Fisher uses employee surveys to continually tweak the program. She had found that almost every employee takes advantage of the subsidy.

Unhealthy and disengaged employees cost companies financially — the World Health Organization has estimated that anxiety and depression cost the global economy $1 trillion a year in lost productivity. And according to Gallup, disengaged employees have higher absenteeism and lower productivity. They also generate fewer profits.

By Liu’s estimate, companies overall spend about $210 per employee on wellness programs, and participation is less prevalent than at Deloitte, typically running at up to 20% of the workforce.

From a strictly financial viewpoint, disease management programs seem to save the companies money, lifestyle modification less so.

For example, Liu said a study of PepsiCo’s wellness program found that the corporation got back $3.80 for every dollar spent helping employees cope with chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes. For health risk screening and lifestyle modification, PepsiCo recouped just 50 cents on the dollar.

That makes sense, he said, because employees need time to change behaviors. Plus, it can take many years or even decades for, say, quitting smoking to translate into saving money on health care.

“The biggest mistake employers make is basing their wellness programs solely on medical cost savings,” said Anna Greenwald, founder and CEO of Center City-based On the Goga.

She began her firm in 2015 to provide yoga to individuals and companies but pivoted three years later to a corporate wellness focus. She now works with more than 100 companies, including Urban Outfitters and Johnson & Johnson. Customized plans might include skill-building workshops, meditation sessions, and the creation of workout videos for employees.

“When we invest in the well-being of our employees because we care,” Greenwald said, “we not only set our employees up physically and emotionally to perform at their best, but we build trust, transparency, clarity, and authenticity.”

Bosses must buy in, she said. “You can schedule a yoga class, but if your leadership is going to schedule over that,” she said, “it will be hard for a wellness program to make an impact.”

Since COVID-19 hit, she said executives are also supportive of virtual programs focused on mental health and self-care, among other goals.

For Hoover, the manager at Deloitte, the firm’s wellness program is especially important now that he’s working out of his home. Beyond running on a nearby track and playing golf, he appreciates the company’s focus on a work/life balance.

On some days, he said, the firm will simply bar any Zoom sessions, just “to get away from the phone and the camera.” By the same token, he said, the company will inform employees to stay off emails over the weekends.