What’s trending in wellness?
Stand up. Move more. Workplace wellness experts agree on both, and offer more insights to separate fact from fiction in the world of wellness.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
With all “new” things, eventually newness wears off. We’re at that point now with workplace wellness programs.
That’s why now is the perfect time to take a hard look at the trends in workplace wellness to separate fact from fiction and move these programs forward so they can actually accomplish what they were originally designed to do — improve employee health and well-being, while still acting as a means to reduce company health insurance premium costs.
That last point needs some re-evaluation though. While every company wants to reduce its expenditures on health care and reduce the number of days lost to employee illness or injury, that can’t be the sole or even primary emphasis of workplace wellness programs.
“The health promotion profession is still under pressure to provide evidence of some form of return on investment, even if the program is not strong enough to lead to health improvement,” notes Lisa Elsinger, a Ph.D. and a Madison-area health promotion consultant and speaker. “Because there are multiple influences on people’s health, it is unlikely that having a wellness program will be the answer to reducing health care costs.”
As part of her work, Elsinger consults with organizations to develop and maintain healthy and safe workplaces. She’s also a national speaker on topics related to health promotion, self-care, adult learning, and professional development.
Elsinger says employers need to be wary of purported research studies that display direct ROI calculations to wellness initiatives because data and analysis may not be accurate enough to be credible or generalizable.
“I believe that including employee health and well-being in organization goals and strategic plans, rather than just considering wellness as a disconnected set of activities, is the way to have a positive impact on both employee and organizational health,” Elsinger explains. “The wellness programs that are successful are ones that employees enjoy and value, are actively supported by leadership at all levels, and that are part of an organization’s core values.”
Do the locomotion
If there is one thing that experts agree on, it’s that we need to move more at work — a lot more.
Presenting the wellness wheel to a group, GHC’s Brian Hancock demonstrates wellness goes beyond nutrition and exercise. This exercise helps participants take inventory in their wellness.
“Seriously, it takes about 40 minutes of sedentary behavior for your metabolism to slow down,” says Brian Hancock, CSCS, ACE health coach and worksite wellness specialist for Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin. “I recommend that people get one to three minutes of movement every 30 minutes. The opposite of sitting is moving, and marching in place is enough activity to counteract the negative effects of sedentary behavior.”
Hancock says research is also confirming that the purposeful 30 to 60 minute block of daily “exercise” is not enough. We need to move more often.
That said, Elsinger suggests it’s time to retire the “sitting is the new smoking” maxim.
“[That] analogy was intended to make a strong point about the very real health effects of inactivity,” says Elsinger. “Both sitting and smoking take a serious toll on health, and in similar ways, but we need to address them both as individual health risks.”
According to Elsinger, inactivity in the workplace is very challenging to change. She’s observed people in meetings refusing to stand up when someone calls for a one-minute break, or meeting organizers stating that there’s simply no time for a break. One leader even curtailed a five-minute self-care reminder at the end of a 90-minute meeting in favor of another “relevant topic,” she says.
“People sit at desks for hours at a time, and even ignore the prompts they have set for themselves to take a break,” Elsinger admits, “so culturally we have a long way to go before people grasp the importance of regular breaks to stand up, stretch, look away from computer screens, and move. It comes down to what is considered acceptable and valuable in any given workplace. Organizations that have integrated regular breaks into workdays have experienced higher productivity and more engaged employees. Most often this starts with leaders.”
Taking a stand
Solving the sitting problem isn’t quite as simple as just standing up.
Hancock notes research recently came out highlighting the body’s own internal scale mechanism — if we’re bearing weight on our bodies by standing, that can send signals to our bodies to curb caloric intake. However, standing all day isn’t good for your body either.
Top: Standing on a bed of river rocks creates an active standing base to help strengthen a worker’s feet, which are the foundation to physical health, says Brian Hancock. Bottom: An alternative to more expensive options on the market, GHC’s Brian Hancock uses what he calls an “Ikea Lack Hack” standing desk.
Hancock prefers adjustable workstations that allow for a transition between sitting and standing — and not favoring one position exclusively at the expense of another — precisely because of their flexibility.
“For me, I like the standing option more so because sitting is more comfortable,” explains Hancock. “When we are comfortable we are less likely to move. When we look at behavior change, awareness accounts for 10% of change. Opportunity accounts for 40% of change. Just telling people that sitting is bad isn’t that effective. Provide the option to sit or stand in addition to education, and now people are 50% more likely to change their behavior.”
Elsinger agrees that giving employees a sit-stand desk is not enough — just like having a treadmill doesn’t lead to fitness. Ergonomics programs have seen a significant increase during the past few years, as research has found that adjusting workstations to fit the individual employee leads to a significant decrease in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Chronic pain and limitation resulting from MSDs affect every aspect of a person’s life and create some of the highest medical costs for both employees and employers, she says.
“[However], standing desks and other ergonomic equipment must be used correctly and combined with constructive work habits (e.g., avoiding slouching and other poor postures, repetitive motion, and ineffective balance between sitting and standing),” states Elsinger. “All workplaces should have some form of ergonomic assessment and adjustment, along with education on proper use.”
Before employers go all in and buy standing or adjustable workstations, they should survey their employees to confirm that is something they would actually want, advises Hancock. The next step would be to show employees how to stand, use, and strategize frequency.
The cost of purchasing adjustable workstations may seem high at first but when considering what the average adult pays in health care cost per year for being sedentary — $1,437, according to StateOfObesity.org — the adjustable workstation could negate those costs in one year, Hancock points out.
Providing employees with cushioned mats, desk cycles, and treadmill workstations can seem really great at first for encouraging employees to take a stand, and people love the idea of them, notes Hancock.
“[But] for me, they do one thing really well — they keep people at their desk longer,” he says. “What we need to shift away from is this notion of work, work, work at all costs.” Research shows how taking a break from work allows us to de-stress and come back to work refreshed and revitalized. In Japan, for example, they understand the importance of taking a break so much that they encourage employees to forest bathe daily.
“Forest bathing” is essentially just being in the presence of trees. “No hiking, no counting steps on a Fitbit. You can sit or meander, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish anything,” notes an October 2016 article from digital news outfit, Quartz.
“We need to find ways to move more and break up the day,” says Hancock. “Can we schedule standing/walking meetings? Instead of calling or emailing a colleague down the hall, walk over and talk with them. When possible, think about the built environment. Does it encourage people to move more or does it let them outsource their activity? Are the elevators easier to find than the stairs? Are the stairwells inviting or are they dark and gross?”
Is it worth it?
Some additional wellness trends that actually have merit, according to Elsinger, include providing opportunities for both individual and collective activities to improve personal health.
“We avoid packaged wellness initiatives that attempt to promote a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and instead address the specific needs of an organization,” Elsinger explains. “If an employer or insurer provides an online health assessment, we recommend that if people choose to participate, they consider the results as a personal health profile — just one of many sources of information to use when deciding how to take steps to improve their health, rather than just getting it done to receive a financial reward.”
Wearable devices are motivating for some people, Elsinger notes, but many find the novelty wears off in a short amount of time. Wellness programs that include use of mobile activity-tracking devices encourage people to be more diligent in using them to detect progress toward their health and fitness goals. Importantly though, Elsinger recommends employers don’t purchase Fitbits for employees without first having some type of initiative in place that encourages their use.
“Another important element of everyday work activities should be the integration of mindfulness practices at work,” notes Elsinger. “Numerous studies have found that mindfulness and meditation, even for a few short minutes, can help people deal with the effects of stressors, remain calm during hectic workdays, improve communication skills, and feel a sense of increased well-being. There are many approaches and practices, as well as apps such as Headspace and Calm that provide guided meditation to help people relax and rejuvenate.”
Perhaps one of the most important factors in workplace health promotion is addressing all of the factors that influence employee well-being, engagement, and productivity — and moving away from focusing primarily on individual behavior, suggests Elsinger.
“In addition to senior leadership support, we know that managers strongly affect the climate in their departments,” Elsinger states. “Managers are being encouraged to develop trust, open communication, and a supportive team environment. And as we learn more about how the physical environment affects people, an emerging trend in workplace wellness entails creating work environments that support health and well-being by applying LEED and WELL building standards to new construction and to existing building renovations.
“When these actions become a regu-lar component of the workplace, the culture shifts toward better health overall,” adds Elsinger. “While a company may not have a formal wellness program, there are still many ways to promote employee health.”
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