Corporate Wellness Programs: New Concept or Ancient Advice?

Wellness programs are seen as a way not only to improve the overall health of an organization, but also to lower costs and empower employees to improve their health. Learn about the evolution of the wellness program out of historical achievements from businesses like Kaiser, as well as future opportunities for expanding wellness programs to show an ROI.

Gym memberships, lifestyle perks, and a "culture of health" are all becoming commonplace in today's corporations. Wellness programs are seen as a way not only to improve the overall health of an organization, but also to lower costs and empower employees to improve their health.

But are these programs new—or have they been growing in popularity for centuries?

Waterfall running over rocks in a green forest

Starting 300 years ago...

Over 300 years ago, the Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini suggested there might be an affliction among workers called an occupational disease, and that it could be prevented with planning. In 1817, the Welsh social reformer Robert Marcus Owen was the first to recommend an eight-hour workday, coining the phrase "eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest." The concept took a long time to gain traction, but in 1914, the Ford Motor Company was one of the first private companies to implement an eight-hour work day.

Kaiser Permanente Launches Employee Healthcare 80 Years Ago

Perhaps one of the most well-known corporate wellness programs was a hospital launched by Henry Kaiser for his construction employees in 1933. Within a decade, it grew into a fully staffed facility serving 20,000 workers. Fast forward eight decades, and that wellness program has created a model of services that provides healthcare to 12 million members.

Corporations Forced to Take a More Active Role 50 Years Ago

The first Employee Assistance Programs were rolled out in the 1950s to combat the growing problems of alcoholism and mental illness. But the model we see for corporate wellness today advanced during the 1970s, when legislation started to shift more responsibility––and cost––to employers for healthcare. OSHA and other workplace safety oversight groups started in this decade, making employers aware of the impact they had on the health of their employees.

Johnson and Johnson started their Live for Life program in 1979, which was the foundation for many of today's corporate wellness programs. The J&J program included physical and personal assessments, allowing them to create wellness programs that focused on nutrition, weight loss, and stress reduction programs.

Healthy People 2000 Set a Vision 30 Years Ago

Another decade passed until the US government in 1991 launched the Healthy People 2000 program, encouraging a goal of 75% of employees with more than 50 employees to offer wellness programs that improve health as an employee benefit by the turn of the century. The program was based more on concept than hard evidence that improved employee health would reduce costs, but the concept gained in popularity due to its logic.

Healthy People 2010, issued in 2000, updated the old vision and now focused on five 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.

Today...69% Employers Have Wellness Programs

According to a Rand Corporation study, 69% of employers with over 50 employees have some type of wellness program. But a deeper dive in these numbers indicates that 80% of large employers (over 1,000 employees) have a wellness program while only 33% of smaller firms (50–100 employees) have such benefits. Small businesses (less than 50 employees) were not included in the study, often citing lack of financial resources as a reason for not offering wellness benefits. In general, incentives are often needed for employees to participate and will increase participating.

Program Configuration Definition % of Employers per Configuration
Limited Limited services across all three components 34
Comprehensive Extensive services across all three components 13
Screening-focused Broad range of screening services but limited lifestyle- and disease-management services 20
Intervention-focused Broad range of lifestyle- and disease-management services but limited screening 21
Prevention-focused Broad range of screening and lifestyle-management services but limited disease management 12

Source: RAND Employer Survey 2012, in S. Mattke, H. Liu, J.P. Caloyeras, et al., Workplace Wellness Programs Study, Santa Monica, California. RAND Corporation, RR-254-DOL, 2013.

What's Next for Employee Wellness Programs?

Employee wellness programs now have a foothold in US corporate culture and are expanding to include unique programs that not only show an ROI, but greater employee engagement, and are on the way to reducing costs. While there is more work necessary to increase participation and adoption with small businesses, wellness programs are now a firm part of today's employee benefits landscape.

Ready to get started on your employee wellness program? Many carrier partners have resources to offer that will get you started on establishing a proven program and communicating it to your staff members. They also do the "heavy lifting" so it's not a burden on your HR resources.

If you already have a wellness program, it may be time to take it to the next level. Make sure the activities and programs also measure the change that is taking place so you can verify the results. Keeping employees in the loop––throughout the year––through ongoing communication will keep them engaged and participating in your employee wellness program. Reach out to your Woodruff Sawyer Account Team for more advice on how to best to do that.

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