Even the strongest health education and counseling programs will fail to achieve measurable impact if they are undermined by policies or an environment that encourage unhealthy choices. But how to create a workplace culture that supports healthy lifestyles? The answer may be a health culture audit.

The benefits of worksite wellness programs have been widely documented, including increased productivity and improved morale, along with reduced absenteeism, lower healthcare premiums and medical costs plus fewer disability claims. Wellness programs may also boost employee retention and recruitment efforts.

Unfortunately, wellness programs often ignore the contextual forces that influence health. This remains true despite social ecological models that demonstrate that the larger social system has a great bearing on individual health outcomes.

In other words, by weaving health promotion efforts into the workplace environment and company policies, employers can more effectively influence healthy behaviors. Such initiatives also have the potential to reach wider segments of the employee population and are generally less labor intensive.

Yet the responsibility for designing an effective worksite wellness initiative often falls to a benefits adviser or human resources leader. While these professionals possess distinctive strengths in several critical areas related to wellness, such as benefit design and administration, creating a health culture can be a daunting task that more comprehensive organizational support.

Why conduct an audit?

A comprehensive health culture audit can reveal answers to several key questions about an organization’s commitment to wellness. These include:

  • Do company policies support employee health?
  • Is the overall workplace environment conducive to healthy activities?
  • Are there offerings aimed at helping employees remain healthy?
  • Is the employer willing to further invest in employee well-being?

A properly executed audit can identify characteristics of a worksite that have potential to facilitate or impede healthy behaviors among workers. Health culture audits are also useful for measuring progress year-to-year and may predict employee risk profiles and associated healthcare cost trends for employers.

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"Unfortunately, wellness programs often ignore the contextual forces that influence health."

Audits should evaluate the availability of facilities like fitness centers, showers, recreation areas and bike racks, as well as the general “walkability" of the work place, all of which can influence employees’ level of physical activity. They should also review available food service options, including vending machines and cafeterias, and employees’ ability to store and prepare foods brought from home, all of which can either promote or discourage more nutritional eating habits.

In a similar vein, organizational policies, such as designating tobacco-free areas and providing incentives for achieving health-related goals, should also be assessed.

To succeed, worksite wellness initiatives must address all the ways that a workplace culture impacts health-related behaviors. Advisers and HR professionals who develop these programs would be prudent to undertake a health culture audit in order to better understand the challenges they must confront.

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