Wellness programs are now found in many workplaces.

But do they improve wellness or work health and safety (WHS), both in the short term and with longer term sustainability?

“The jury is still out”, according to Julie Armour from Sydney-based risk management consultancy Working Armour.

Ms Armour says a recent review of the financial reports of Australia’s top publically listed companies by the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) found many companies now run workplace programs to “improve” employee mental health and wellbeing i.e. wellness programs.

Missing in these reports, however, was clear evidence the programs work, either from employee health – or a work health and safety (WHS) point of view, Ms Armour said.

According to the report, financial companies reported on enabling flexible workplaces, providing development opportunities, employee assistance programs (EAPs) and well-being initiatives – but only one in five disclosed absence rates.

Mining companies provided wellbeing programs and employee assistance programs (EAPs) but less than a third reported turnover rates, only 4% reported absence rates, and none reported on overtime worked, she said.

This was in addition to almost 20% of the top 100 publicly listed companies not publicly reporting on WHS.

“It almost seems like a stab in the dark; we are doing a whole lot of stuff which may cost a significant amount of money – but we have no idea if it works,” Ms Armour said.

“How do you know if you are making good investment choices when companies only report on the initiatives but not on the results?

“And how do you know such programs achieve any actual improvement? For all we know, we could be simply feathering the nests of a vast array of consulting companies profiting from the recent media hyped wave of interest in these areas. Equally we could be missing out on understanding which of these programs are most successful in improving indicators and saving money.”

Ms Armour said this was particular important in times of tightening WHS budgets. “If you are cutting your WHS budget at the same time as increasing your wellness budget, the question needs to be asked; why? There are clear monetary benefits to improving WHS – the benefits of wellness programs are less clear and we may be putting resources into areas which are less risk. We also may be ignoring opportunities for holistic expenditure where elements of both can be addressed at the same time.”

Ms Armour said there was a pressing need for companies embarking on wellness programs to identify objectives prior to starting – and accurately measure the results.

“Why spend significant amounts of money in an untargeted scattergun approach if you are not measuring for change?”

Ms Armour said when employers do attempt to measure their wellbeing indices they should invest in forms of objective measurements rather than the self-reported survey response alone.

They should identify the impact of wellbeing programs on other relevant workplace measures, such as utilisation of EAPs, employee satisfaction levels, staff turnover rates, absenteeism, or overtime worked.

Ms Armour said speakers at the Informa Workplace Wellness Conference in Sydney at the end of July 2015 identified a number of barriers to workers improving their general health and wellbeing.

These included long work hours and commute times, job insecurity, and the impact of physical work on their bodies. “It would seem that all the money spent on wellbeing initiatives could be a waste if there is no measurement of the impact of such programs on these barriers.”

Wellness program developers need to also not confuse popular programs with actual changes in wellness or WHS metrics, Ms Armour says.

“A Lend Lease example is reported where a financial workshop educating employees on superannuation and wills was its most ‘popular’ wellbeing initiative. Other parts of the wellness programs included cooking demonstrations, highlighting bad health habits, one-on-one health coaching, flu shots, cancer awareness, suicide intervention and mental health first aid.

A 12-month follow up survey found that 90-100% of the survey respondents had ‘benefitted’ from these wellness initiatives, but it was not clear how they benefitted or even how many of those involved in the programs responded to the survey.

They did indicate that they reduced their total recordable injury frequency rate (TRIFR) by half but the relevance to the wellbeing programs was not clear. They suggested that wellness programs contributed to a ‘happier and more productive’ business, without demonstrating exactly how this was determined or measured in an objective way that did not rely solely on self-reported feedback surveys.

“No one is suggesting such programs shouldn’t be conducted,” Ms Armour said. “But if you are going to spend money on them make sure you establish a baseline need, ensure the expenditure matches the degree of risk in the workplace and that you can measure if programs actually create any change in the workplace rather than just a number of superlative motherhood statements.

“Rather than manual handling consultations for example why not focus on ensuring the use of higher order controls at the design and planning phase of these types of tasks then follow up by measuring whether improved practices have been achieved. We know that talking about risk and being aware does not necessarily change behaviour! We know we shouldn’t speed when we drive but is that enough to slow us down?”

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