The evidence behind health and wellness programmes

Before companies carry out health and wellness programmes they want to be sure that their money is going to be well spent.  The big questions are: Do health and wellness initiatives work? What is the return on investment?  Will staff appreciate being told what to eat and how to exercise?  Are these programmes motivational enough to increase productivity and reduce sick days?

Absenteeism across the UK cost businesses £32billion a year (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2011).  The worrying aspect of this number is that companies cannot know which days are for sickness and which days are ‘sickies’. (Sick days account for 80% of Absenteeism). Surveys have tried to establish the reasons people take ‘sickies’.  For example a survey conducted by HireScores found that out that hangovers accounted for 89% of days taken (workplace law 2010).

Being obese can contribute to absence from work which may affect the productivity of the workforce.  Obesity is a growing problem and raises the likelihood of developing medical conditions such as type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, musculoskeletal disorders, certain cancers, depression, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, fatty liver disease and other preventable health conditions (Wilson G et al 2007)

Other problems that are associated with obesity are mental health issues such as low self esteem and depression due to possible bullying or discrimination.  Back problems may be exasperated by being overweight and can be a cause of absence (Bupa).

Weight will always been a sensitive area, but if approached thoughtfully and professionally according to Bupa, the health of the employee will be improved, sickness days reduced and performance increased.

Wellness and health promotions are important and Andrew Sykes, the Chief Wellness Officer for Destiny Health in Chicago, said that for wellness programs to work, people must follow by example.  If people at the top are making changes then this will filter down the company.  Change is made by good leadership. Wellness programmes may fail because progress is slow.  Weight does not drop off over night.  Staff should be offered incentives for changing their behaviour, increasing their daily exercise and reducing BMI and cholesterol. 

However Incentives alone may not be the answer. Kelly Brownell director of YaleUniversity's RuddCenter for Food Policy and Obesity said that they probably don’t work.  LuAnn Heinen of the Washington-based NBGH (National Business Group on Health) offers Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyle Awards and supports the concept of wellness programmes, but is herself sceptical about incentives alone.

She says that companies have to tie everything together and to make a complete change.  This means no more junk food in canteens and an environment that encourages a healthy lifestyle, such as accessible stairs, cycle racks and showers.  This ties in with Sykes who believes that the way a company works should change as well to embrace a new and healthy lifestyle.  Breakfast meetings should ditch bacon sandwiches and replace them with fresh fruit.  Vending machines and the staff canteen should offer only water and cereal bars (Sykes 2007).

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute conducted a wellness research project and the most significant finding was that leadership from the top was required.  Incentives and ease of access to the programs came next. The most common reason given for poor attendance at health programmes was time constraints.  To improve these it was suggested that healthy activities were incorporated into the job, getting staff moving and offering healthy foods in both canteens and vending machines.

The Department of health states that: “Employees are at their most productive and creative when they are in an environment that supports their health and well-being and even a small ongoing investment of time and/or money in the well-being of staff can pay big dividends.”

A survey of companies who have recently run initiatives would agree with this.  Many of their programmes were different and were aimed at the requirements of their staff. 

Providing healthy options at the staff canteen seems an ideal solution and companies such as  Astra Zeneca, Towry Law, Standard Life, Nationwide, Google and the British Library have attempted this.  Unilever won the 2010 NBGH award and by encouraging staff to look after their health by making more informed choices.

Healthy eating is just one area of a health campaign and these firms have provided a range of services for their employees supporting both mental and physical health.  Towry Law provides special places for employees to lock their bikes.  Astra Zeneca who provides counselling and life management programmes for their employees and found that productivity rose by around £600,000.  By improved health and safety, occupational illness rates fell by 61% (Business Action in Health). The British Library offered a range of other services including nutritional advice and BUPA health care.  Over a two year period, their staff turnover was halved and £160,000 was saved due to less absence (Business Action in Health).

Stress can be a huge factor at work and companies can benefit by tackling this.  The Grimbsy Institute of Further Education invested in management training, looking primarily at stress and by doing so reduced stress related sick days by 57% over a three year period.   Stockport Council had levels of stress and absenteeism that were very high.  The council invested in a health wise campaign and succeeded in saving £1.58million by reducing sick days by 44%.   ParcelForce ran a program that trained managers to deliver health promotion and stress counselling to their staff and promoted get well soon guidance cards. Productivity was increased by 12.5% (Business Action in Health).

It is important that organisations with a caring role look after their staff as well as their clients.  Oaklands Care Home in Wales did just this by running a health and wellness programme where they held taste-and-try sessions and encouraged staff to swap recipes.  As a result absenteeism decreased and team working improved.

Although it is difficult to calculate the ROI on health and wellness programmes, what can be measured is a more productive workforce and greater job satisfaction (Carruth & Carruth 2009).


Carruth A, Carruth P. (2009) .  Cost Implications for corporate wellness programmes Journal of business and economic research . vol.7 no 6, August pp 25 - 30

Harden A, Peersman G,Oliver S, Mauthner M & Oakley A (1999) A systematic review of the effectiveness of health promotion interventions in the workplace. Occupational Medicine vol 49 no 8, pp 540 - 548

Sykes A (2007) The Secrets to Success in Wellness Programs: Leadership, Incentives, Healthy Workplace, [Online], Available: [13th January 2013]

Grensing-Pophal L (2010) Wellness Programs: Worth it or a Waste of Time? [Online], Available: [13th January 2013]

Business in the community. (2009) Business action on health [Online], Available: [13th January 2013]

Absenteeism costing UK business £32 billion a year, with workers taking almost double the number of ‘sick’ days as US counterparts. (2011) [online], Available: [20th January 2013]

Hangovers are most common reason for sickies. (2010) Workplace Law [online] Available: [20 January 2013]

Wilson M. Goetzel R, Ozminkowski R, DeJoy D, Della L, Roemer E, Schneider J, Tully K, White J, & Baase C. (2007) Using Formative Research to Develop Environmental and Ecological Interventions to Address Overweight and Obesity. Obesity (Silver Spring). (Suppl 1): 37S–47S.

Tackling obesity in your workplace. [online] Available: [23 January 2013]

Anderko L,Roffesnbender J,Goetzel R, Millard F, Wildenhaus K, DeSantis C & Novelli W. (2012) Promoting prevention through the affordable care act: Workplace Wellness. Preventing chronic disease. Vol 9

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