Advice for implementing workplace wellness policies

Many adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work, and the influence of the workplace on personal health has gained attention from health experts and employers. In the U.S. today, nearly half of workplaces offer some type of wellness support or programming to their employees. Few, however, implement wellness policies.

For the few that do, they may find designing and implementing effective policies to be a big challenge. Now, new research from the University of Georgia could shed light on how to successfully roll out wellness policies.

The study evaluated the implementation of healthy eating and physical activity policies in a large, multisite organization.

The logistics involved in coordinating policy implementation across multiple locations are complex, said lead author Rachel McCardel, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Public Health and a member of UGA’s Workplace Health Group, which is housed within the college.

The organization featured in the study has one central office based in Atlanta, Georgia, with eighteen satellite sites located around the state. Each location varied in the services they delivered.

“We knew it was likely that the policies they rolled out at headquarters would need to be adapted at each location,” said McCardel.

The organization first introduced its physical activity policy at their central office and later rolled out the policies to all 18 locations. The policy allowed workers to take a 30-minute break during their workday to exercise. Two years later, the organization introduced a healthy eating policy, which required that healthy food options be made available at meetings.

McCardel and her co-authors interviewed wellness ambassadors, employees who had been designated by the organization to support employee wellness initiatives at each location, to learn whether their sites had implemented each policy, their approach to rolling out the policies, and how the policies were received by site employees.

They found that policy rollout varied. Six locations adopted both policies, nine locations had only implemented the physical activity policy, and two locations hadn’t put either policy in place.

The sites that linked the policies to existing programs or found ways to keep the policies top of mind for employees seemed to have the most success.

“That communication is so key because a policy doesn’t exist if people don’t know about it. We can’t expect policies to have impact if they’re not communicated,” said Heather Padilla, the director of the Workplace Health Group and study co-author.

Worksites that had wellness committees also saw higher uptake of wellness policies. McCardel and Padilla attribute this to several factors. Committees not only help distribute the workload of maintaining health and wellness policies on-site, but they offer the advantage of garnering feedback from multiple voices.

“There isn’t one policy that fits all,” said Padilla. “With a committee, you can get representation from more than one person to understand what adaptations may need to be made in the context of your worksite.”

McCardel says this was an important finding. The logistics of rolling out a policy may be trickier than a central headquarters realizes, so it takes champions at local sites to ensure the unique needs of their employees are met.

“In a program, you opt-in if you want to participate. A policy is designed to reach everybody, but there were cases where it wasn’t reaching everybody,” said McCardel.

This could also explain why so few workplaces have healthy eating or physical activity policies. Overall, the team found that once the wellness policies had been explained clearly or made to fit the needs of the worksite, most employees appreciated them.

All workplace policies are a challenge to design and implement, say McCardel and Padilla, which is why more research is needed not only on development but implementation strategies for health and wellness policies.

The study, “Examining the Implementation of Physical Activity and Healthy Eating Policies in a Large, Public Health Organization,” published January in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Emily Loedding, a Master of Public Health-doctoral student at the UGA College of Public Health, is an additional co-author.

– Lauren Baggett

Read the story on UGA Today.

Posted on March 15, 2021.