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Written by Dr Arien van der Merwe, medical doctor, author, stress & workplace wellness consultant and peer educator trainer.

Workplace wellness interventions have become an essential tool to successfully address the burden of disease in South Africa. It is time for a paradigm shift: for too long we’ve been focusing our attention on the problem (i.e. managing disease). Wellness interventions focus on finding solutions through health promotion, optimal health and wellness through awareness, education and new ways of thinking.

Burden of Disease: Statistics based on Heart & Stroke Foundation Report Sept. 2007

  • Experts estimate total direct & indirect costs of death & disability from heart disease & stroke to be in excess R8 billion a year
  • Heart attacks & stroke particularly tragic, as in 70% of instances, these would strike down victims younger than 55 years of age, the most productive years, removing the breadwinner from families, and even when non-fatal, often result in severe disability & consequent impoverishment for entire families..
  • Up to 80% of heart disease and stroke could be prevented by setting up healthy habits for life: a good diet, exercise, stress management, new ways of thinking & smoking cessation
  • Heart disease 2nd biggest killer of South Africans after Aids (est. 890 people / day die from Aids). It is estimated that by 2010, the CHRONIC diseases such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes will kill 666 South Africans daily
  • Heart disease not the male only problem it was thought to be years ago. ¼ (25%) SA women < 60 is affected. Heart disease is the cause of death in 20% of all deaths in women

The eight benchmarks for successful workplace wellness solutions / interventions

  1. Collaboration and management active support – without this no workplace intervention can be successful. True support also means active participation.
  2. Creating teams that work well together – will spread the responsibility, ensure a shared workload and help for a spirit of support and cohesion
  3. Collecting data – this will help you prove return on investment, participation and success of interventions
  4. Crafting an action plan – have clear set goals, time lines, specific duties assigned
  5. Choosing suitable practical interventions – what do employees want, which incentives would they appreciate, how far will their support and participation go
  6. Creating supportive environments – ensure a workplace where wellness is easy and part of the day to day business
  7. Carefully evaluating outcomes – ensure that what you’re doing is making a difference, plan for future interventions and adapt existing ones
  8. Creating with employees – if they ‘own’ their wellness intervention, they will participate enthusiastically

Ten questions you have to ask to ensure successful workplace wellness interventions

  1. Why do you want to implement the specific intervention/s? Matching this with employee needs and wants (interest survey), company needs as determined by current health profile and risks, medical claims profile and analysis, workplace culture survey, employee absenteeism, sick leave and presenteeism figures. The data from these will provide return on investment statistics, show efficacy of benchmarks selected, and success of programs.
  2. What is the target employee population you would like to participate? Simply aiming interventions randomly into the organisation, can be risky, as you might miss the mark completely. Rather ask this question and decide whether you would like to aim it at a specific group to act as a pilot study, e.g. a stress management or 12 weeks to wellness course aimed at top management, to be rolled out to other employees once success and participation have been proven. What are the objectives, incentives, time frame, level, cost, legal issues, evaluation protocols, key contacts, support centres? Answering these questions pro-actively will allow for much more specific and measurable results.
  3. What incentives are you going to use? Choosing the right incentives are very important to increase employee participation. Find out what employees want!
  4. How are you going to promote the interventions? Participation is notoriously slow and low! You get all excited about your program and nobody pitches. Prevent this from happening by making sure you have excellent marketing tools and multiple media communication options in place.
  5. How long will the intervention period be and how time consuming will it be for participants? Do not underestimate this as enthusiastic wellness practitioners often overestimate the available time, motivation and enthusiasm of employees! Be clear and up front about the time involved, necessary steps, commitment needed, etc.
  6. Will all employees from different departments, shifts and locations be able to participate? This can complicate the practical suitability of your interventions. Use technology to assist you in this, but be sure will require hard work, effort and thinking ahead from your side!
  7. What levels do you want to address with the programs/s? There are 3 levels of programming: awareness, education and behaviour change. Each requires money, time and specific interventions. Often interventions start and stay with the awareness phase. Ideally interventions should start simply and basically, moving into an ever more progressive and intensive program, so that employees can fall in wherever they are on the scale of readiness, but also have programs in place for those who are motivated and in the maintenance, or more advanced, phases.
  8. What are the total costs of the intervention/s? Plan, plan, budget, budget! Draw up a costing, cash flow projection, future planning. Never underestimate the cost of successful sustainable interventions. Also do your utmost to show return on investment with careful bookkeeping on expenditure, changes in employee sick leave and absenteeism figures and medical aid claim profiles. This links to question 1.
  9. What are the legal, disclaimer, safety and confidentiality issues involved? Consult with legal, safety, liability and human rights experts. Involve the unions right from the start.
  10. How are you going to evaluate your interventions? Will participation and participant satisfaction be enough to appease the financial and management decision makers? Will you need assessment and/or measurement tools?

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