Why Healthy Workplaces and Workforces are Good for Business

By Nick Buettner

Companies around the world aiming to boost their bottom lines and extend their reach in the years ahead will need to prioritize and fully invest in their workers’ overall well-being, a mounting body of research shows.

The benefits of a healthy workforce are clear. Studies have found that when workers are healthier, they are also more engaged, absent from work less often, more focused, and less likely to retire early because of illness, all of which results in lower health care costs.

Studies have found that when workers are healthier, they are also more engaged, absent from work less often, more focused, and less likely to retire early because of illness, all of which results in lower health care costs. Share on X

The hazards of an unhealthy, high-stress work environment are also clear. According to the Harvard Business Review, companies with pressure-cooker work cultures spend nearly 50 percent more on health care than companies with more low-key environments. Moreover, 60 to 80 percent of workplace accidents are due to stress, while job stress accounts for $500 billion lost from the national economy and 550 million workdays lost annually, according to the American Psychological Association.

“Employees today want to work for organizations that value their well-being, so it makes sense that companies are searching for new ways to prioritize employee wellness, especially as remote and hybrid work blurs the line between work and home,” Benepass CEO Jaclyn Chen told Corporate Wellness Magazine.

Benepass released a benchmarking report in 2022 that analyzed benefits data from more than 20,000 employees in the U.S. and found that traditional fitness, nutrition, and mental health benefits were the most desired offerings. The report also found some companies implementing a variety of new lifestyle benefits–including spa, massage and beauty treatments, pet care, parental support, and travel–aimed at improving their employees’ overall health.

A 2021 paper published in the Journal of Corporate Real Estate examined multiple workplace studies from the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, finding overall that healthy workplaces had fewer workers calling in sick.

Still, the researchers conceded that some of the studies they reviewed had mixed outcomes, and they underscored the challenge of effectively quantifying the cost of interventions and resulting health outcomes, which may make it difficult for some companies to accept the need to invest in their employees’ health.

“Another difficulty is that some outcomes might be experienced in the short term and perhaps only temporarily, while others might be sustained, reduced, or only experienced in the long term,” the paper states.

Yet to be successful improving worksite well-being, employers have to understand the relationship between the interventions and the outcomes their organizations will face. Workplace leaders need to understand the value of improvement efforts, measure the gains, and define and adopt strategies that lead to the preferred outcomes.

Some outcomes take time to come to fruition, so employers would do well to recognize the key performance indicators that lead to those desired outcomes, and the real science that has emerged around workplace health.

Companies reluctant to spend more on employee wellness seem only to be sacrificing long-term viability and growth for short-term gain. Fortunately, we can look to ongoing workplace health initiatives in the U.S. and abroad that are demonstrating how improved worker and workplace health can help companies truly flourish.

In a 2020 Fortune article, “Good Health is Good Business,” McKinsey Global Institute partners pointed to low-cost, simple health promotion strategies that can improve productivity. The researchers noted that a UK public sector employer used health assessment questionnaires for staff, along with a health promotion initiative that included family days, team-building days, and health walks, and resulted in a 44 percent reduction in sickness absence.

The McKinsey partners also highlight how a BMW car plant in Dingolfing, Germany, made low-cost ergonomic changes to its production line, addressing issues that caused physical stress for older workers. The result: Productivity rose, work quality improved, and sickness absence dropped, leading BMW to make the same changes at other plants.

We can also look to the Blue Zones Project, where evidence-based health principles–drawn from the blue zones areas around the globe where residents have historically demonstrated extraordinary health and longevity–are applied to participating communities throughout the U.S.

Blue Zones Project Albert Lea saw a 40 percent drop in city worker healthcare costs less than 10 years after the project began. Share on X

Blue Zones Project Albert Lea saw a 40 percent drop in city worker healthcare costs less than 10 years after the project began.

Albert Lea’s employers also also saw such dramatic improvements as:

  • $8.6 million savings in annual healthcare costs due to the decline in smokers in the city
  • 300% increase in funds given to the city by its insurance carrier for its 2014 wellness program, and medical premium increases avoided for city workers in 2014 and 2015
  • $128,000 in health care costs saved by a Blue Zones Project worksite within a year of opening a worksite clinic for its 500 employees

In 2015, the Blue Zones Project partnered with NCH Healthcare to launch its health boosting program in Southwest Florida, impacting nearly 800 organizations in the region to date. Spurred by the project, NCH itself built walking paths around its hospital campuses, developed employee nutrition challenges and eliminated sugar-sweetened beverages from its cafeterias and vending machines.

NCH’s efforts resulted in substantially decreased healthcare costs. Over three years, the company saved $27 million in healthcare claims, while seeing a 54 percent reduction in healthcare expenditures. The company has not raised health plan premiums in five years, and saw a 40 percent decrease in lost work days related to injuries.

Overall NCH employee reported well-being, meanwhile, rose 2.8 percent on the Gallup-Sharecare Well Being 5, a scientific survey that measures the five related elements with the most impact on well-being: purpose, social, financial, community and physical. 

Blue Zones Project Beach Cities was brought to the community in 2010 by Beach Cities Health District and since then, the community has reengineered the environment and culture to encourage lifestyle behaviors exhibited by the longest-lived people in the blue zones regions. Since that time, they have become a certified Blue Zones Community® and have made drastic improvements to overall community well-being. What may be even more powerful than healthcare savings and the reduction in projected lost productivity of $21 million, 82 percent of residents now say they like what they do every day.

Improvements to corporate health care systems take time, money, and a little creativity, and no company is guaranteed immediate results. But effective, well managed workplace health initiatives will certainly reward companies over time both with growing financial returns and the improved health and happiness of their workers.

Nick Buettner is the Vice President of Community Engagement at Blue Zones. He is also a National Speaker, Blue Zones expedition member, and ed-tech innovator. Over the last 20 years, Nick has led 17 expeditions over 6 continents around the world, three of which were to Blue Zones sites. Nick received his B.A. in International Business with a minor in Economics from Augsburg College. In his free time, he enjoys playing hockey, gardening, and going on adventures.

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