Workplace Wellness: Well Beyond Safety

Desk Treadmill by A Healthier Michigan, Flickr

The concept of workplace wellness started with the introduction of regulations governing workplace safety intended to reduce physical injury due to workplace accident. Over time, concern and regulation expanded to address illnesses caused by exposure to hazardous substances and conditions. As our knowledge of the ergonomics of work broadened, the scope of workplace wellness further expanded to include issues such as repetitive strain injury and spinal health.

Physical Wellness at Work

In recent years, workplace wellness programs have focused on lifestyle issues and improving the overall physical health of employees. Programs that help employees quit smoking, lose weight, or improve their understanding of nutrition may not seem to be work related at all. Aside from being a caring employer, however, there are clear practical advantages to supporting a healthier workforce, including:

  • reduced absenteeism,
  • improved productivity,
  • better claims experience on health insurance resulting in lower premiums; and
  • increased employee engagement.[1]

Social Wellness at Work

As our understanding of workplace wellness continues to evolve, we realize there are a number of social elements that have a significant impact on the well-being of employees. This is not about using social media tools to facilitate a wellness program (however useful that might be); rather, it’s about getting to the heart of how the working environment can support people as social beings. When an employer implements a wellness program and provides employees with the time and support required to take advantage of it, they also contribute to the social wellness of their employees—simply by demonstrating that they care. In order to feel “socially well” at work, employees need to feel emotionally safe, feel valued and have a sense of belonging to a greater community.  Here are some factors and practices that will contribute to a sense of social wellness at work:

  • Absence of fear.
  • A culture of inclusion.
  • Opportunities for employees to get to know each outside of their work roles.
  • Managers and supervisors who take an interest in employees’ personal lives.
  • A commitment to learning from failure rather than punishing it.
  • Acceptance of feedback as a valued mechanism for continual improvement.

Mental Wellness at Work

The final frontier of workplace wellness is mental wellness. The topic of mental health is one that has traditionally been avoided by employers and by society as a whole. Unfortunately, ignoring it has not made it go away, as we can see by these statistics from Mental Health America.

“Nearly 1 in 5 Americans had a diagnosable mental health condition in the last year and many others are at risk. For almost 20 years, stress-related issues in the workplace have been on the rise… Every year, mental illness and substance abuse cost employers an estimated $80 to $100 billion in direct costs.”[2]

In fact, the growing number of injuries due to stress, burnout or other psychological factors, is the primary cause of increased absenteeism.[3] In the context of workplace wellness, employers of the future will have to focus more on social and mental wellness in their efforts to provide a healthy working environment. Programs aimed at reducing workplace stress and supporting better work-life balance, for example, will continue to gain importance, as will practices such as;

There is no question that our understanding of what constitutes workplace wellness has greatly expanded in recent years. While breaking the concept of workplace wellness down into three distinct facets can help us drill down into the issues and design better programs and supports to address them, it’s also important to remember that physical, social and mental health are three parts of one complex whole. Taking care of the physical self is often the first step in overcoming stress. Similarly, feeling emotionally safe and part of a team contributes greatly to mental health, while the opposite circumstance drains both physical and mental stamina.  Creating a safe and healthy work environment involves thinking about employees as whole people with demanding lives outside of work.


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