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How Healthy Are Your Workplace Wellness Programs? Interview with Katrina Walton

By Tasha Broomhall

It is common these days to have a focus on workplace mental health and workplace wellness programs in general. However, how do we ensure that our initiatives are actually meeting their objectives and not just a band aid approach – throwing resources at a problem yet not knowing if we are actually solving the problem?

It’s common for workplace wellness programs to be transactional – we simply ‘do stuff’; but do they ignite and support positive change in our workplaces, changes in attitudes, knowledge and behaviour? How do we make them transform workplace practices and culture? Katrina Walton knows all about changing the health culture of workplaces – and we interviewed her to find out how she does it and what advice she has for designing transformational not just transactional wellness programs.

What are the benefits of workplace wellness programs?

Workplace wellness is no longer viewed as a nice-to-have but a business imperative. Organisations investing in the health and wellness of their greatest asset – their people – are reaping the benefits. This is backed by decades of strong evidence across the globe regarding the effectiveness of such programs. For employers, benefits include increased morale/employee engagement, productivity, creativity and innovation, attraction and retention of employees, together with a reduction in sickness related absenteeism and workers compensation costs. And not to forget, just being a great place to work! Employees (and often as an extension their families) benefit from improved health literacy, physical and mental wellbeing, work fulfilment and productivity.

Why is it the employers responsibility? Shouldn’t employees take care of themselves?

It always amazes me that employers will spend thousands of dollars and man hours on maintaining essential equipment, but won’t invest the same in maintaining their most important asset, their human capital.  Surely it’s just as important for people to function well?
Poor employee health and wellness has a negative flow-on to the workplace including higher absenteeism and injury rates and lower productivity. Furthermore, whilst the workplace can positively impact employee wellness (through stimulating and rewarding work), it can also have the very opposite effect. A stressful and unsupported working environment can quickly erode employee wellbeing. From a duty-of-care perspective, workers should be able to return home from work as healthy (or ideally healthier) as when they arrived. Therefore, employees wellness is a two-way street. Both employees and organisations share responsibility.

How do I measure our workplace wellness program to see if it is worth the money I’m spending on it?

Whilst many Australian organisations recognise the importance of investing in employee health and wellness, according to a recent study undertaken by Bupa, only 12% of Australian workplaces measure the impact of their investment! To eradicate the ‘nice-to-have’ tag, organisastions need to be able to demonstrate the value on investment, both for employees and the organisation. To do this, they need to clearly define and establish measurable goals and objectives as part of their planning. Typically the success of interventions will then be measured by a mix of both quantitative (e.g. surveys) and qualitative (e.g. workplace observation) evaluation methods. But, be warned! Ensure expectations are set at a realistic level. Whilst positive changes can occur within a few months of implementing a wellness program (e.g. improved staff morale), research and experience suggests the full economic benefits will take 3+years to be realised. Such programs should be viewed as a long-term investment in your human capital.

What should an employee wellness program include?

Essentially, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for an effective workplace wellness strategy. It must be tailored to the organisation’s business objectives, structure, demographics and culture to ensure buy-in and ownership. In saying that, there are key characteristics that best practice programs share:

  • A comprehensive needs assessment undertaken in collaboration with key stakeholders will ensure that where organisations spend their precious time, money and resources is spent in the right place.
  • An integrated and best-practice approach to health, safety and wellness management will also include not only a focus on the individual employee, but at a policy, cultural and environmental level.
  • Educating and empowering key stakeholders – including leaders, coordinators and local champions – is critical to a successful and sustainable program and building a wellness culture.

I have a limited budget – what should I focus on to give me the most bang for my buck?

Workplace wellness is still often perceived as an optional extra or discretionary spend. One in which the organisation’s “bean counters” can draw a red line through at budget time when dollars are being scrutinised. It is still largely viewed as a cost as opposed to an investment.
Generally I will turn this excuse on its head and ask ‘but right now, how much is poor health and wellness costing your organisation?’ We’re talking about a critical business issue here. Can your organisation afford NOT to invest?

As wellness practitioners, we often fail to communicate the ‘burning platform’ for investing in employee wellness and the cost of doing nothing. We subsequently lose out to a host of other business concerns that executive deem more pressing, particularly in tight economic times. In preparing the business case, practitioners need to be able to clearly articulate the value-on-investment. Is it reducing the frequency and cost of workplace injury, boosting employee engagement or being an employer of choice? Or all of the above? Ultimately this will stem from your organisation’s overall business strategy. Put simply, you need to ask yourself the question, ‘what’s keeping the CEO up at night’?

Research and experience also suggests that a comprehensive wellness strategy doesn’t need to be expensive to be effective. It doesn’t have to break the bank. The key is ensuring that you get the ‘best bang for your wellness buck.’ So how do you make your wellness dollar stretch further? Whether you are just embarking on your wellness journey, or well along the road, these tips will have both your employees and Finance Manager smiling.

How do we take our program from just ticking a box to making transformational changes?

One-off health checks, underutilised EAP programs and a tired looking fruit bowl in the staff tea room. These are some of the typical ‘wellness programs’ we see when visiting workplaces across Australia. Often such programs are run off the side of the desk by a very enthusiastic (but often overwhelmed) staff member who is trying to ‘do wellness’ in addition to their ‘real-job’. And whilst it’s great to see such organisations obviously believe that investing in employee health and wellness is important, without the necessary rigour required, such programs are only ever going to be perceived as a bit of fluff.

True transformational change requires strong buy-in from senior leaders, alignment to the organisation’s overall goals and culture, and a targeted and results oriented approach.

Most importantly, it requires educating and empowering key stakeholders – leaders, coordinators and local champions – to make it happen. Only then can true and sustainable transformation happen; where it ultimately becomes business as usual.

Written by Tasha Broomhall.
Katrina is Director/Founder of Wellness Designs, a boutique consultancy business. Wellness Designs support Australian workplaces to create healthy, safe, engaged and high performing employees.

Our Mental Health Awareness Analysis for Leaders and Workplace Mental Health Analysis (All Employees) will provide you with a clear snapshot of mental health in your organisation.

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