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Wellness programme design - important for every size business!

Most human resource professionals understand the importance of a healthy work-force. For that reason, they will generally champion workplace wellness initiatives when they can. However, in the battle to secure resources, the busyness of work or a lack of knowing where to start, wellness programme design is often overlooked. This can be especially the case for SME's (small to medium businesses) who may feel that such planning is only relevant to corporates with large numbers of workers and ample resources. On the contrary, this article demonstrates the benefits of a well-designed wellness programme, whatever the size of the organisation.


Why are wellness initiatives important?

It is generally acknowledged that worker well-being has an impact on business performance. The Workplace Health Association of Australia have recently argued that "workplace health has progressed from its 'nice to have' and 'right thing to do' image, and has become a key business performance driver. The question is no longer whether programmes should be adopted, but how they should be designed, implemented and evaluated to achieve maximal benefits".


The current health and well-being of New Zealanders - including New Zealand workers - is currently at risk. We are now living much more sedentary lifestyles than ever before. Moreover, we tend to eat a higher sugar, high carbohydrate diet. The New Zealand Health Survey 2016/2017 showed that around one in three adults (aged 15 years and over) were obese (32%) and a further 34 percent of adults were overweight. This has an impact on long-term health outcomes, but also the current physical resilience of workers.


Data from the latest BusinessNZ/Southern Cross Wellness in the Workplace Survey showed that New Zealand businesses lost 6.6 million working days through absenteeism in 2016, which equates to 1.5 billion dollars. The survey showed that non-work-related illness and injury was the leading driver of absence, something health and wellness programmes would seem primed to address. All 109 businesses in the survey said that wellness impacts on the productivity of their staff, with most experiencing a noticeable drop in output when staff are unwell. A typical employee's absence costs their employer $600 to $1,000 a year. There is also the issue of presenteeism (an employee being at work, but not being productive). Improving wellness is therefore important to business productivity.


The impact of poor mental health is also becoming more widely recognised. Stress, depression and anxiety are common in New Zealand and on the rise across our society. Indeed, nearly half the New Zealand population will meet the criteria for a mental illness diagnosis at some stage during their lives, and one in five will experience depression in any given year. The Wellness in the Workplace survey showed that employers observed stress was up 22.9 percent on the previous survey in 2014. Therefore, there is a lot of evidence that businesses cannot afford to overlook the mental health of their workers.


The overall number of small businesses represent 97 percent of all businesses in New Zealand. Together, small businesses employ around 30 percent of New Zealand's working population and produce around 27 percent of New Zealand's Gross Domestic Product. Therefore, SME's, as well as larger organisations, are well advised to take workplace wellness seriously.



Why is wellness programme design and planning so important? 


The best way to ensure benefits from any wellness initiative is well planned design, which includes programme evaluation and is repeated annually or biannually. A well-designed - rather than adhoc - wellness programme, helps target areas of greatest need and maximise return on investment.


New Zealand companies are starting to recognise the importance of workplace wellness and will support wellness initiatives. For a variety of reasons wellness programme design is often overlooked however. This may be due to human resource workload, staff without the expertise to implement wellness programmes or a sense of not knowing where to begin. This can especially be the case for SME's who may feel that such planning is not relevant to them, given they are employing a smaller number of workers and have limited resources. However, workplace wellness is relevant to all workers and does not have to cost the earth.


International studies suggest reduced absenteeism, presenteeism and higher productivity are potential benefits of a well-planned wellness programme, particularly over the long-term. Therefore, what is required by all business in the current environment is a long-term, ongoing commitment to providing a healthy workplace. Good planning helps to build a sustainable commitment to workplace wellness and embed a wellness orientation into company culture.


Taking time at the planning stage allows the opportunity to secure management and board buy-in. In assessing the need to take action, a PricewaterhouseCoopers report argued that "employers must be able to clearly articulate the objectives for wellness and how success will be measured to gain the Board level buy-in and the resources required for effective implementation. The success of these programmes will then depend on demonstrating ongoing return on investment; key enablers of which will be incentives and effective measurement".


Good workplace wellness design requires some thought and time at the initial, planning stage. Yet, the actual programme does not have to be costly. Moreover, by targeting efforts, a company can invest more wisely.



Important elements of programme design

Most experts agree on certain key elements of successful design, planning and implementation. The following essentials emerge again and again in the literature. So, it is worth paying heed!:


  • Create a culture of wellness - Gaining management buy-in is something that is emphasised over and over in the literature. Leadership from the top provides support for those creating programmes and encouragement to employees who see management prioritising wellness.
  • Objectives - It is important to spend time identifying risks and objectives. If you don't know what your goals are, it is very difficult to plan. Therefore, programme design requires needs assessment which might include consultation, data collection, analysis of data, determining priorities and making recommendations to stakeholders (e.g. management, H&S committee, employees).
  • Benchmarking - It is important to collect data, so that you can evaluate your initiatives. Ask yourselves what data you have already? And, what data can you collect? This step will probably take place in conjunction with setting objectives.
  • Involving staff - Involving staff in planning, design, implementation and evaluation is important. Identify wellness champions (perhaps the H&S committee) and harness their enthusiasm.
  • Good communications - A successful wellness programme requires marketing and ongoing communications. You might consider developing a brand and use pre-existing channels of communication. Also, aim to use communication channels that will appeal to the range of generations in your workplace (e.g. traditional and social media).
  • Evaluation (built into future planning) - A thorough evaluation helps to ensure ongoing organisational commitment to wellness. Incorporate learnings into future planning.


Unexpected benefits - Getting excited! - two case-studies

Time spent at the planning stage cannot be overestimated. Benefits can be unexpected. For instance, in working with one larger SME, Animates, I found that conversations amongst team members in the early stages of planning sparked team members to take the initiative to implement wellness activities. They also expressed positivity at having a clear plan to follow. In line with many other reports, the Health and Productivity Institute of New Zealand argue for "a participatory approach to development and implementation of the workplace wellness programme. This includes involving employees early on in planning stages, listening to employees' opinions and suggestions, including employees from across all services/divisions of the organisation on wellness committees, and appointing key employees as workplace wellness champions"


Another company I worked with, Neptune Pacific, expressed relief and surprise at all the options that were available to them. I have observed that once an organisation gets started, in earnest, with a stepped approach to design and planning, they can become motivated by the progress they are making towards an effective, tailored package of initiatives.



Resources and further assistance:

In New Zealand, there are a number of good, free and low-cost resources available to workplaces to help them develop a workplace wellness programme. There are also organisations that can help with planning. Some are listed below:



Good resources:

Some useful websites include:

  • nz: Resources and advice put together by the Health Promotion Agency, Wellington (in partnership with some other healthy agencies) to help business provide a healthy place to work -
  • The Heart Foundation: Have a good range of free posters etc. -
  • The Mental Health Foundation: Provide a range of resources and information for workplaces including the five ways to well-being resource package -


Help with planning:

There are also organisations that can help in the crucial planning stage:

  • WorkWell - a free initiative to help you design, plan and implement a programme, available in various regions across New Zealand
  • Joyworkz Ltd - offer a reasonably priced design and planning service. They provide independent advice, a little like a VTNZ WOF check (when the mechanic helps identify what you need to do to fix your car but doesn't dictate where you take it for repair). Joyworkz review your current programmes, help you establish future objectives and provide a range of suggestions for meeting these. You can then decide how much you will do yourselves and whether to contract any external providers.



To conclude, this article has made the case for putting effort at the front end of workplace wellness; that is, putting time and effort into wellness programme design and planning. This planning will pay dividends in the longer term, ensuring integration of wellness into company culture and a good return on investment over the longer term. Wellness planning begins an exciting journey in worker well-being for SME and larger organisations alike.


References available on request



Involving staff in planning, design, implementation and evaluation is important




Dr Kathryn Owler has many years' experience in the wellness industry. She currently co-directs Joyworkz Ltd, a New Zealand based workplace wellness company. Kathryn has conducted and published research on fun at work and workplace wellness, written a number of magazine articles and published a memoir of her journey in pursuit of fun at work. To discuss any aspect of this article or the work that Kathryn does, please feel free to get in touch: [email protected]