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Successful Wellness Programs Hinge on Emotional Well-Being

A recent study notes that companies should pursue the development of a workplace culture where employees are supported for their health and well-being.

April 23, 2012

Open communication and encouraging a team atmosphere is how a chain of burrito restaurants employing a large number of Spanish-speaking young people in the metro Boston area promotes emotional well-being among its workforce.

Christine San Juan, Boloco vice president of people development, says that making employees feel as if they are an essential part of the company contributes to organizational health and personal well-being.

"Our goal for our 300 employees, many of whom are younger workers, is to engage them on a daily basis in the workplace and through events the entire company participates in," San Juan says of the 15-year-old regional chain of restaurants. "For example, we gather teams to participate in outside events such as charity runs or bike races, but we also give them time off of work to improve on their English speaking skills if they have the need and desire."

San Juan believes that being fluent in the language gives Boloco employees—50 percent of whom do not speak English as a first language—more control over their lives because it can affect a variety of things, such as shopping for groceries and understanding a sales contract.

Like Boloco, more than 57 percent of U.S. employers with 500 or more workers have some form of a wellness program in place, including offering free annual flu shots and integrated programs that promote healthy eating, exercising and financial health, according to a 2011 MetLife study. Only 16 percent of small employers offer such programs, the study found.

However, a report on wellness trends published in August 2011 by Chicago-based employee assistance program provider ComPsych Corp. shows that many employees are in such poor emotional health they are not likely to support or sustain healthy lifestyle changes.

According to the report, 40 percent of employees said an emotional or physical health problem has interfered with their normal activities, while 36 percent said they are tense and anxious most of the time, the report found. Additionally, 43 percent did not receive good support from friends and family in the past six months, and 21 percent said they have felt down, depressed or hopeless in the past month.

The ComPsych report also indicated that poor emotional and physical well-being can cause people to self-medicate by overeating or using alcohol and other substances. Fifteen percent of employees surveyed admitted to getting no exercise at all, and 31 percent said they exercised one or two days per week. Thirty-four percent reported eating one or no fruits and vegetables daily and only 16 percent said they were getting enough sleep.

So how can employers boost the emotional well-being of their employees in order to achieve their corporate goals for wellness, which in many cases are geared toward reducing the cost of health care?

A March 2012 report prepared by consultancy Towers Watson for the New England Employee Benefits Council concluded that key ways to improve health and well-being include programs that improve the physical health of employees and ways to educate them as more informed consumers of health care. Companies also should pursue the development of a workplace culture in which employees are supported for their health and well-being.

The report suggests that incorporating workforce well-being and work-life balance programs and adopting new technologies to improve employee engagement are essential, as is creating a workplace environment that encourages social interaction as well as exercise and healthful eating habits.

"High-performing workplaces must be committed to more than productivity," adds author and corporate trainer Marlene Caroselli. "Consciously or unconsciously, employees show respect to one another; they express their concern. In the best scenarios, co-workers ask about one another's families."

Caroselli believes that rituals embedded in a workplace culture can help solidify morale and increase emotional wellness, at least during the eight hours a day that employers have a target audience. She says that rituals are typically developed around employees who are joining or leaving the workplace, or around promotions or other recognition.

Within the workplace, rituals start to define the culture and are a convenient way of translating desire into action, she says.

"Rituals can be designed to inject fun into the day for people with too much to do and too little time," Caroselli says. "When enriching rituals are woven into the corporate fabric, we find missions more meaningful, goals more personalized, values more valuable and continuity more pride-inducing—and they can offset the stress and isolation that leads to poor emotional well-being."