Employee-wellness programmes have become a billion-dollar business globally as savvy corporates increasingly recognise the benefits of healthy workers


You often see pictures of them on the covers of glossy annual reports: groups of smiling, carefree employees (often in a mid-air leap), exuding good health and happiness, loving their bosses and colleagues … even creepy Tom in accounts.

In some cases, this scenario is a fallacy. But in others, it’s achieved with hard work and a rigorous, often scientific, approach to employee wellness. And it’s becoming more of a business imperative as research shows the link between employees’ health and wellness and the bottom line.

Over the past few years, employee wellness has become a major focus for companies and governments, with an ever-increasing focus on managing employee health and well-being. But what does it mean beyond our sketchy idea of the Google games room and free food – or, as most mortals would have it, a clinic down the corridor and a monthly bulk-discounted massage?

Viresh Maharaj, chief marketing actuary at Sanlam Employee Benefits, refers to Harvard Business Review’s definition of employee well-being, namely ‘an organised, employer-sponsored programme designed to support employees – and, sometimes, their families –as they adopt and sustain behaviours that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the organisation’s bottom line’.

He says that employee wellness has become part of the organisational lexicon due to the acceleration of a number of trends: the increasing costs of healthcare; a maturing understanding of the impact that poor health can have on staff’s ability to deliver on their responsibilities; the development of tools to evaluate lost productivity and increased absenteeism; increased societal pressure to live healthy lifestyles; and the emergence of the millennial employee group, which demands more from the institutions it works for.

Maharaj believes that due to these trends, wellness with respect to health promotion is part of the fabric of how most SA corporates manage their workforce.

‘This varies in the degree to which each firm promotes health but most JSE-listed companies would attest to taking the physical well-being of their staff seriously,’ he says.

Examples of interventions include the proliferation of wellness days, testing protocols in the workplace, access to medical aid, counselling and stress-management courses.

SA may not be leading the world in terms of the popularity and prevalence of employee wellness-schemes but our interventions align with the world’s leading players. And in some cases, the country’s methodologies are being used internationally.

In mid-September, for example, US healthcare corporation McKesson announced that it had won the 2015 C. Everett Koop National Health Award for its company’s employee health and wellness programme. It is worth noting that McKesson’s programme is powered by SA’s Discovery Vitality and its corporate-wellness solution.

Given the WHO estimates that about one in four South Africans can be classified as obese, weight management, exercise and healthy eating programmes have recently become popular focus areas, especially as obesity has been linked to increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. Employee wellness, however, runs much deeper than physical health.

Roger Sahoury, author of Gladiator’s Guide to Corporate Health & Wealth, told Forbes: ‘When a team understands how much a company cares about each individual person, the people will work harder, be more dedicated and can more easily operate as one unit.’

Sahoury argues that if the overall wellness of an organisation is evaluated and treated holistically, a company can ‘minimise mechanical and structural problems while maximising culture and profitability’.

The wellness business is certainly booming, with many corporates having dedicated wellness departments and high-level focus. According to Forbes, a multibillion-dollar industry has grown up overnight and today, more than 90% of all large employers in the US reportedly offer one.

‘Employers can positively influence their staff’s ability to make healthy choices with a focus on the fourth bottom line: human capital’

In SA too, employers are realising the value of improving employee health and wellness, says Felicity Hudson, head of reputation management at Discovery.

The 2014 Discovery Healthy Company Index showed that stress, high blood pressure and high cholesterol were the most prevalent health concerns among employers. ‘While the business case for investment in employee wellness is better understood, the reasoning behind this is only now beginning to emerge,’ the index report states.

In its rationale for the survey, Discovery says that ‘with 15 million people employed in South Africa, the health and well-being of the country’s workforce is more important than ever before.

‘Employers have a unique opportunity to improve the lives of their employees and, indirectly, the families who depend on them, by measuring and managing their health.


‘Since people spend a great deal of their lives at work, and work significantly impacts stress and lifestyle, employers can positively influence their staff’s ability to make healthy choices with a focus on the fourth bottom line: human capital’.

According to Hudson, Discovery Vitality research has shown that employees who participate in wellness programmes at work exhibit lower absenteeism in comparison with those who do not, accounting for a positive impact of approximately 3% in direct and indirect employer costs.

In SA, Discovery offers employers access to a recently enhanced corporate wellness offering. The Discovery Wellness Experience includes pre-populated data on registration, a rotating body scan, improved HIV testing and delivery of a personalised report within 24 hours, which includes health information and how to address possible health risks.

Since its launch in May 2015, Discovery has hosted more than 50 of these events for numerous employer groups, providing health screenings to as many as 17 000 attendees.

However, all things considered, isn’t this merely a nice-to-have in the post-recessionary, dog-eat-dog world? ‘Employee well-being programmes play a pivotal role in a successful business. It should be particularly so within a fairly tough economic climate,’ says Hudson.

The SA Chamber of Business estimates that in excess of R20 billion is lost annually due to reduced productivity and increased absenteeism resulting from illness and disability, which puts a tangible cap to the potential economic impact that an effective wellness regime may deliver.

Maharaj points out that employee-benefits programmes have never been more relevant than they are now, due to the reliance of SA employees on their retirement funds to build and create their lifetime wealth.

‘The results of the 2015 Sanlam Benchmark research indicate that the typical South African employee is reliant on their employer to provide the mechanism by which to fund their retirement savings, as well as to provide guidance with respect to financial matters,’ he says.

Steve Peralta, wellness consultant for the BSG group – which has designed a ‘wellness and happiness programme’ – can put his money where his mouth is – the company has consistently been considered an employer of choice within the ITC industry for the past few years.

BSG ranked in the top five of Deloitte’s Best Company to Work For survey between 2007 and 2012. It also came first in the Discovery Healthy Company Index in 2011 and 2012, and featured in the Top 3 in 2014.

‘Any progressive and ethical organisation would choose to support the health and wellness of its people,’ he says. ‘An organisation that does not, suggests that their employees are dispensable cogs in a corporate machine – an outdated paradigm.’

‘Most JSE-listed companies would attest to taking the physical well-being of their staff seriously’


The proof is in the result: this year, BSG has had an absenteeism rate of just more than two days per person – well below the national average. ‘As absenteeism has a direct impact on productivity, it stands to reason that healthier, nurtured employees will lead to improved productivity levels, and BSG is certainly a living, breathing example of this,’ says Peralta.

In his opinion, a successful programme will address wellness holistically – physical well-being, mental/emotional well-being, career well-being, financial well-being and community well-being.

It will also understand that people are different and have varied needs when it comes to wellness. This is essentially where the challenge lies, as a one-size-fits-all approach will not succeed in engaging employees.

Sahoury takes the issue of employee wellness a step further. ‘I view health and wellness as the new frontier and fuel for the successful businesses of tomorrow,’ he says. ‘It takes a healthy lifestyle and mindset to succeed in business.’

By Tracy Melass
Image: Gallo/GettyImages