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Employers hone in on wellness program success, combating poor work climates

Employers hone in on wellness program success, combating poor work climates

SAN FRANCISCO — Employers' success in improving the overall health and productivity of their workforce through wellness and health management programs may depend greatly on the quality of their workplace climate, according to new research by the Integrated Benefits Institute.

Employees in poor working climates — measured by employees' perception of jobsite safety, respect and trust among staff and managers, job engagement and satisfaction and overall workload — spent more than twice as much time away from work due to common job-related maladies, including chronic pain, fatigue and difficulty sleeping, according to preliminary survey data presented Monday at the 2015 IBI Annual Forum in San Francisco.

Additionally, employees who experience frequent nervousness, restlessness and other mental health conditions reported lower job performance in negative working climates compared with similarly afflicted employees in positive working climates.

“We can see from the research that not only are bad work climates associated with both higher rates of absences and poorer job performance, they also exacerbate the negative effects of mental and physical health symptoms,” Kim Jinnett, IBI's executive vice president, said during a panel discussion on Monday.

Panelists said that one of the most common barriers to employers' efforts in curbing the toll that physical and mental health conditions exact on their workforce is the extent to which managers and supervisors are engaged in championing their companies' wellness and health management programming.

After several years of surveying their employees on the relationship between their workplace climate and their overall health, Oakland, California-based health care provider Kaiser Permanente found that while their physical worksites were conducive to successful health management initiatives, their program wasn't getting the support it needed from field-level managers and supervisors.

“Where we have a lot of opportunity for improvement is in the area of what a supervisor can do to support individuals in leading healthy lives,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente. “It's interesting, because we think so much about telling supervisors what they cannot talk to employees about, and we haven't quite given them the words to have a conversation about health. So that's some work we have ahead of us.”

The Lemont, Illinois-based Argonne National Laboratory noticed a similar problem after polling its employees on the extent to which they feel supported in managing and improving their own health.

“We found out after a year or so that we weren't getting through to the employees where we didn't have the appropriate supervisor support,” said Dr. Jamie Stalker, Argonne's division director for health and employee wellness. “Our people work in very intimate groups, and if our supervisors didn't get it, then the employees didn't get it either and they weren't given the time to participate.”

To address the issue, Dr. Stalker said Argonne began holding educational boot camps designed to both familiarize its working group leaders and supervisors with the company's wellness program as well as train them on communicating the program to their employees.

“I've found that in the two years since we started the boot camps, the light bulbs are beginning to go on across the workforce,” Dr. Stalker said. “I think that starts with our group leaders.”

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