Global Wellness Institute Roundtable Identifies Ten Ways Workplace Wellness Must Evolve in the Future

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Experts from organizations like the Cleveland Clinic and Clinton Global Initiative outlined the profound ways that work itself is changing, and how workplace wellness concepts must also shift to tackle the new realities

Even big companies still house their employees in what are essentially unhealthy spaces. We will see the design and building of workplaces change in the next decade...

The Global Wellness Institute™ (GWI) today released ten key takeaways from its recent roundtable on the topic of “Redefining Workplace Wellness.” Read the full report here.

This 7th GWI roundtable was focused on the future of workplace wellness and was designed to move discussions beyond company ROI to identify the ways workplace wellness approaches need to evolve to meet today’s changing workforce and to finally deliver on the promise of healthier, more productive employees.

The invite-only event attracted leaders from renowned medical and policy organizations, including Dr. Michael Roizen, Head of Preventative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, and Emily Dery, leader of the Global Health Track at the Clinton Global Initiative, along with Chief Medical Directors and executives from companies like Johnson & Johnson, Citi, Goldman Sachs, Weight Watchers, Pegasus Capital, Virgin Pulse and Staywell. (View participant list here.

The 25+ participants identified ten crucial, new realities that workplace wellness needs to address going forward, given what Dr. Roizen called “the unprecedented speed of change” happening within the very idea of work - and the profile of the global workforce.

Ten Ways that Workplace Wellness Must Evolve in the Future

1. Stop the Mud-Slinging on ROI and Focus on Total Return-on-Value

The current workplace wellness discussion is dominated by negative media and unscientific “studies” that baldly conclude “workplace wellness doesn’t work.” The roundtable agreed that in the future companies will shift from a narrow focus on ROI, to a recognition of wider “return on value’: not just focusing on healthcare costs, but important gains in retention and productivity (93% of workplace wellness return in the first year is in productivity gains, not reduced costs).

2. Take Seriously That 24/7 Work Is “Killing Us”

Technology has spawned a new, global work scenario: namely, imprisonment by screens and a powerful erosion of the line between work and life. Assembled experts agreed that we have not yet begun to grasp the wide-ranging impact on employees’ physical and mental health… and productivity. As Shawn La Vana, Head of Marketing, Virgin Pulse noted, “We’re checking our smartphones 150 times a day, how focused can we really be? All of this time in front of screens, for work and in our personal lives, means we’re not exercising and eating well, and all of this feeds into a vicious cycle of poor health choices.” Experts like Paul Terry, CEO, Staywell, agreed that most companies are completely failing at shutting down the work-employee connection, and that, in the future, companies will need to redefine the very concept of “productivity.”

3. Embrace Technology Opportunities: from Mobile to Telemedicine

Technology is very much a “double-edged sword” as it’s also delivering so many once-unimaginable tools that are workplace health’s friend. Telemedicine, allowing workers to connect with doctors via phone, text and online, is a major, prevention-focused opportunity for employees’ physical and mental health - enabling anytime communications with medical professionals so employees get care before they’re very sick. And telemedicine, online coaching and mobile apps are allowing employers to support the hardest-to-reach, most isolated workers: those working remotely or offshore. Whether it’s new ingestible nanotechnology that can capture employees’ biometric data 24/7 (making current wearables seem clunky), or all the proliferating wellness apps, the roundtable agreed that technology will rewrite the design and delivery of workplace wellness programs going forward. (And privacy laws about employees’ personal health information will also go through many future re-writes.)

4. Extend Wellness to an Increasingly Remote Workforce

With a galloping percentage of global employees working remotely or offshore, workplaces need to extend meaningful wellness initiatives to these employees who may need it most (suffering more loneliness and lack of peer support in both work and health). So the conversation in the future will increasingly shift from “workplace programs” to total “workforce” solutions. And as Dr. Fikray Isaac, Chief Medical Officer, Johnson & Johnson, noted, “Smart companies (wanting to positively impact remote workers) will increasingly include their families, significant others and communities where they live” in the wellness game plan.

5. Adapt Global Programs to Local Realities, Culture & Resources

The roundtable strongly agreed that the future of global/multinational wellness initiatives is to throw out cookie-cutter (i.e., heavily U.S.-based) “blueprints” because delivering wellness successfully varies wildly by global region. Not only because the health challenges differ so intensely worldwide, but also because each region has different wellness resources at their disposal and different entrenched traditions. And these regional hyper-specificities (from the fact that if you want to tackle smoking cessation in Russia you need to include the grandmother, to the reality that if you exclude Ayurveda in many Southeast Asian countries you’re alienating the vast majority of the population) aren’t just interesting anecdotes, they make or break programs. Advice: “live there, listen and learn” first.

6. Address the Sharpening Age Divide: Both Millennials and Extended-Worklife Baby Boomers

The roundtable concurred that millennials and their tech-focused brains will continue to redefine work, workplaces and wellness approaches. In a nutshell, they demand far more work flexibility and expect all kinds of health and wellness. As Dr. Ken Pelletier, Professor of Medicine, Universities of California, San Francisco and Arizona, put it, “Millennial worksites and their idea of ‘wellness’ will look very different. I’m still astounded when I visit Google: this generation is taking us into an expectation of health, and doesn’t find working yourself to death until 10 PM a desirable model.”

At the same time, working populations are aging worldwide (and extending work well into traditional retirement years), and this group has unique needs: from often favoring at-home work, to migrating in and out of the workforce. Joel Bennett, president, Organizational Wellness & Learning Systems, noted that both work structures and wellness programs for millennials need to acknowledge that this “emerging” group, as well as the older “wisdom” group, “represent a real evolution in the human developmental lifecycle as we’ve known it, with emerging adulthood and the aging workforce extending in years.” Two very distinct age groups will increasingly mingle in the workforce, and more businesses need to rethink their once-size-fits-all-ages wellness approaches.

7. Mental Health Focus Must Ramp Up

Most global workplace wellness initiatives have focused on physical health (from fitness to healthier foods). But given people’s hyper-connected lives, and the fact that, post recession, all research points to companies demanding more “efficiency” and heavier workloads – we have a once-silent, but now getting louder, mental health and stress epidemic on our hands. The experts agreed that they are excited about the research around neuroplasticity, and approaches like positive psychology, meditation and mindfulness, and predict that more innovative mental health strategies are coming to future workplaces - and not just for Silicon Valley executives.

8. You Can Mock Holacracy - But Top-Down Power Hierarchies Will Change

There has been much recent derision of companies like Zappos’ experiments with holacracy, a new “no boss,” “curb the egos” approach to running businesses that removes the management hierarchy and distributes power across roles. But, while holacracy’s early fumbles may be easy to mock, the roundtable agreed that less paternalistic, hierarchical, top-down power structures will only continue to rise within companies (in part because of women’s growing power) – and this model of more self-responsible employees should have positive implications for companies’ wellness initiatives.

9. Design Healthy Workspaces & Put Greater Focus on Environmental Health

Despite the fact that most people spend the majority of their waking lives working (whether at a business or at home), there has been too little attention paid to designing workspaces that are conducive to human wellbeing and productivity. As Alfredo Carvajal of Delos put it, “Even big companies still house their employees in what are essentially unhealthy spaces. We will see the design and building of workplaces change in the next decade, with a much-needed new focus on natural light, healthy air, worker privacy and comfort, and flexible office design - and incorporating different types of biophilic design, which reimagines there relationship between nature, human biology and the built environment."

10. Think Beyond ‘Programs’ – and Get Serious About a Healthy Work Culture

Companies hear incessantly that if they want to succeed in creating a healthier workforce they need to make it a company-wide mission and have it baked into the DNA of their organization’s leaders. The mantra: workplace wellness needs to be infused throughout a company’s culture, no matter how big or small the business, or what kind of management structure exists. Hundreds of articles have been written on the topic, but the roundtable agreed that because so very few companies have actually realized it, this truth – that wellness needs to be culture-wide, and not just a third-party-delivered, add-on “program” - cannot be broadcast often enough.

The roundtable was held July 15 at Everyday Health’s headquarters in Manhattan, and was co-moderated by Susie Ellis, chairman and CEO of the Global Wellness Institute, and Renee Moorefield PhD, CEO of Wisdom Works. The future of workplace wellness will also be the topic of the GWI’s 2015 research, which will be released at the Global Wellness Summit this November in Mexico City.

About the Global Wellness Institute: The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) is an international think-tank that brings together leaders and visionaries from private and public sectors to positively impact and shape the future of the wellness industry. The GWI is considered the leading global research and educational resource for the $3.4 trillion wellness industry., the world’s first online portal to the medical evidence for common wellness approaches, is also a GWI initiative.

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Beth McGroarty
Global Wellness Institute
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