workplace wellness programs

Top leaders are investing in physical & mental wellness

Safety pros can take advantage of this new frontier

October 21, 2023

Wellness and well-being in the business world has been a hot topic in 2023. It’s being pushed as the next frontier for safety pros. Behind the hype, how many firms are in the wellness/well-being game, and what are they offering employees?

The number of U.S. firms offering workplace wellness programs very much depends on the size of the company. A little more than half (52 percent) of all firms offer wellness programs, according to a 2022 Zippia.com study. A 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also put the overall number at about 50 percent. 

The percentage may be brought down by the large number of small companies (77 percent of the CDC study had less than 100 employees). Small firms generally don’t have the resources or staff to commit to wellness beyond perhaps some basics. Many struggle with resources to meet OSHA compliance. 

In contrast, 81 percent of large firms (with more than 200 employees) had wellness programs in place, according KFF. In addition, four percent of large firms have programs that exclusively perform health screening — meaning almost nine in ten firms have some sort of ongoing wellness program (88 percent).


Walking the talk

It’s easy to say, “Yes, we have a wellness program.” A more pertinent question is what sort of workplace wellness programs are being offered? There are many variations. A survey of consultants and wellness directors from health insurance brokers across the U.S. identified 23 different wellness programs. Everything from sleep, weight and stress management to health fairs, health coaching, and healthy foods. And the 23 varieties include traditional on-site or on demand fitness classes, gym memberships, tobacco cessation and physical exams to newer offerings such as mental health counseling, mindfulness and meditation, disease management and telemedicine.

On average, 64 percent of respondents plan to spend more on these programs in 2023, with 35 percent planning to invest the same amount and one percent investing less.


Mental health has management’s attention

Mental health is one aspect of the growing wellness/wellbeing movement that has shed its stigma (in many firms) and gotten management’s attention. Just more than half of employers, 51 percent, have introduced some type of virtual mental health resources over the past year, according to NFP’s 2022 U.S. Employer Benefits Survey. The report is based on a survey of 563 HR employees that act as benefit decision makers at companies with more than $1 million in annual revenue with at least 100 employees, as reported in Fortune magazine.

“There’s always been that focus on mental health. But now we see more of an equal focus on mental well-being,” Kim Bell, executive vice president, head of health and benefits at NFP told Fortune.

Here is what companies are investing in in what NFP calls “mental wellness benefits:”

  • Online resources (51%)
  • Online education (43%)
  • Employee assistance program – third party (42%)
  • Employee assistance program – carrier (41%)
  • Digital health solutions (40%)
  • Health coaching (35%)
  • Telebehavioral with med insurance (35%)
  • Manager mental health training (33%)
  • In-office mental health resources (29%)
  • Meditation apps (23%)
  • Telebehavioral with third party (22%)
  • Peer support groups (22%)

What’s driving demand for “mental wellness”? It’s not the old return-on-investment calculation. Today, it’s the need to recruit and retain talented employees.

“Employers are clamoring for talent,” Bell told Fortune. More than ever, workers can look at several different offers and benefit packages and pick the one they want. In response, employers are pumping up their benefits, particularly around mental health and well-being, to better compete.

The labor market remains tight, and Bell told Fortune the continued evolution and innovation around workplace benefits isn’t likely to slow. “This is just going to be the way it is going forward,” Bell said.


White-collar well-being, blue-collar well-being

There’s a major caveat to the growth of various wellness programs. “Talent” is most often associated with white collar office jobs. “Talent management” is seldom applied to supervising a construction or manufacturing workforce. Wellness programs exists for both white and blue collar workers, but participation among rugged and helmeted workers in manufacturing, transportation, construction, mining, agriculture and similar industries faces numerous barriers. 

Blue-collar workers tend to have higher rates of tobacco use and obesity. They are less likely to have medical insurance and more likely to report that they don’t have a primary care physician or get regular dental care.

A blue-collar wellness program has to be simple. Workers often toil up to 60 hours a week outside, with their hands, in blistering heat or frigid cold temperatures. Their days start early and end late. They often work in dangerous, highly task-oriented environments where a failure to concentrate can be deadly. They have little if any time throughout the day to get on a computer or their phone to see what wellness programs are available. Simple text reminders at the start of the day to buckle up on your way to work or eat fruits and veggies are quick and simple health reminders.

Wellness programs for these workers must fit their schedules, meaning everything is short -- one- or two-minute video streaming, texts, and quick tips to maintain healthy behaviors. With many remote workers, wellness material must be easily accessible on cell phones. Workers out of cell phone range in the maritime or oil and gas industry, for example, might complete wellness activities on paper print outs or hand their tracking sheets to wellness coordinators at day’s end.

These employees are usually very active throughout the day, making wellness credits for their daily steps a convenient way to complete a wellness activity. Another convenient hand-out is a food nutrition guide. Incentives for making lifestyle changes can be popular with these groups, especially paid time off for completing wellness activities and gift cards from Bass Pro Shops, Home Depot, and local sports competitions and local restaurants.

Gift cards or paid days off are a long way from mindfulness/meditation apps, EAPs, mental health resources and training, on-site or off-site fitness centers and gyms, and online healthy lifestyle videos and education that are accessed much more easily by office-bound, deskbound white collars workers. Office workers are also less stigmatized about asking for help for sleep, stress, or mental health concerns. 

The good news from these various surveys and reports is that wellness programs have advanced far beyond stationary bikes and treadmills and morning stretching. Today they are much more diverse in their offerings, and technology (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.) makes wellness more customized and personal. Perhaps the best news is that senior organization leaders are investing in wellness activities in far greater numbers than in the past. That buy-in and spending will keep the wellness and well-being movement growing, reaching more companies and more employees — whether they work in a 50-story office or an off-shore oil rig.