Workplace Wellness Programs: Managing Stress at its Source

Workplace wellness programs can be a valuable asset for employers and employees. These employee-sponsored programs aimed at helping participants achieve specific health goals and healthy behaviors, such as weight management or weight loss, exercising more, encouraging healthy eating, or quitting tobacco use. The results of these wellness initiatives become mutually beneficial when healthier employees translate to a productive workforce and reduced organizational health care costs. Offering wellness support can be a big differentiator for companies looking to attract and retain top talent in a competitive hiring market.

For employees spending some 40 odd hours a week at work, having resources and support systems offered through the workplace to better manage their health, is a very attractive benefit. According to research, 87% of employees consider workplace health and wellness packages when choosing an employer, 67% of employees who work for organizations with corporate wellness programs like their jobs more, and nearly 54% of Gen Zers and 58% of millennials consider company culture and wellness programs important or extremely important when making a job decision.

Yet, employee participation—especially long term—in workplace wellness programs continues to be low; and without the health data produced by widespread adoption, the efficacy of these programs is still in question. So why aren’t more employees engaging in these opportunities? Stress could be a factor.

Stress is rampant—about eight in 10 Americans say they frequently encounter stress in their daily lives. A significant portion of working adults say that their current job impacts their health. 40% of employees reported their job was very or extremely stressful, and 25% view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that job stress is more strongly associated with health problems than financial or family stress.

Understanding that stress has a direct correlation with work and greatly impacts a person’s whole health, the focus of this blog will be on the health benefits of stress management and its potential to positively influence the health of people at work.

The impact of stress on health

Work pressures are the leading source of stress for American adults and have steadily increased over the past few decades. Some occupations may seem more stressful than others but according to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), “Stress is a highly personalized phenomenon and can vary widely even in identical situations for different reasons.”

Violence in the workplace, long hours, low wages, job insecurity, conflict with co-workers, are just some of the concerns that create stress for employees and impacts well-being. For others, experiences in their personal life—children, family concerns, lack of sleep, illness, financial strains—can carry over into a person’s workday, exacerbating stress at work.

Employees who suffer from high levels of stress in the workplace are less engaged, not as productive, and miss more days of work than their less-stressed colleagues. AIS reports that work-related stress costs employers a hefty $300B each year. Stress that’s chronic and left unaddressed, whether it’s a major or minor issue, can contribute to serious, lifelong health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other issues. Stress can also increase the risk of developing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, which if ignored, can lead to a myriad of other health problems. Additionally, choices made in response to stress—such as smoking, overeating, or drugs and alcohol misuse—can also lead to serious health issues.

There is clearly a need for tools and support systems to help people manage their stress; employer-sponsored wellness programs could deliver stress management support to engaged employees, helping workplaces to provide solutions rather than just triggers.

Stress management for healthier employees

A 2017 workplace stress study found that while workers of every generation report feeling more stressed today than they were a year ago (52%), two-thirds of millennials say they are stressed at work most or all of the time. 72% of millennials also want workplace wellness and health programs in place to help employees manage their stress. So much so that many millennial workers have taken the initiative to reduce their workplace stress by investing in therapy or outside counseling (30%), practicing mediation and/or physical activity (56%), participating in company-sponsored training (64%), and paying out-of-pocket for their own professional development (49%).

Employers offering stress management resources for their employees is an important first step in taking action to reduce workplace stress. Getting leadership involved, enthusiastic, and vocal about these initiatives, can help ensure employees engage and that measurable results are achieved.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that “Offering stress-management counseling as a wellness initiative and getting organization leaders to promote wellness yielded a greater likelihood of achieving wellness goals—including positive effects on health care costs and higher employee participation rates” based on research from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP).

IFEBP data showed that among organizations that encouraged stress management:

  • 53% noted improved employee engagement and satisfaction
  • 45% saw a positive impact on health care costs
  • 43% noticed health screening data improved

Medikeeper tracked three million employees—all of whom had access to workplace wellness programs available by their employer—for three years. Over that period, the respondents reporting the lowest stress level increased by 58%, and the highest stress reports decreased by 39 percent, making a strong case for the ability of workplace wellness programs to help reduce stress.

Companies such as Accenture, Asana, and Microsoft include stress management components as part of their employee wellness program offering. For example, software company Intuit “offers meditation and mindfulness classes as reimbursable expenses as well as incentives for employees engaging in stress-reduction habits, like taking a walk, practicing breathing exercises, or listening to calming music,” according to Monster.com.

Offering stress management support could be the inroads needed to increase long-term engagement for employer wellness programs, helping to improve the worksite experience and employee health outcomes. And happy, healthy employees are a win for everyone.

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