A growing number of organizations offer wellness programs for their employees and for good reason. Employees who have access to wellness programs use fewer sick days, report higher job satisfaction, and demonstrate higher levels of morale than those whose employers do not offer wellness programs.

Because of the benefits that these programs offer for both employers and their employees, it is becoming increasingly rare to find businesses that don’t provide some form of a wellness benefit. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2020 Employer Health Benefit Survey,  81% of large companies offered their employees access to a corporate  wellness program in 2020, which reflects an 11% increase from 2008.

While more companies are beginning to recognize the importance of these programs and implementation of these supplemental benefits in their workplace, the idea of companies incorporating wellness programs and initiatives within the workplace is not new.

Although workplace wellness may look different now than it did in the past, this concept has existed for over a century, beginning as early as the 1800s.

Here is a history of corporate wellness and its evolution over time:

Corporate wellness origins

One of the first individuals to suggest the importance of employee well-being was Welsh philosopher and social reformer, Robert Owen. In 1810, Owen advocated for an eight-hour workday in hopes of both improving productivity and looking out for the welfare of employees. At the time, workers in manufacturing were known to work as many as 70 hours a week, frequently in unsafe and dangerous conditions.

While Owen’s idea wouldn’t catch on until 1926 when Ford Motor Company implemented a 40 hour work week, a few other businesses started taking measures to take care of their employees in the late 1800s.

Employee wellness practices in the 1800s

While employee wellness practices in the 1800s were generally  simple, they set the building blocks for the corporate wellness programs that exist today by focusing on the physical safety and health of employees.

In the 1870s, Pullman Company created an athletic association for their workers, and in 1894, John H. Patterson began to offer morning and afternoon work breaks for his employees at the National Cash Register Company.

These changes were largely in part to publications about health issues during the Industrial Revolution like Charles Turner Thackrah’s book The Effects of the Principal Arts, Trades and Professions and of Civic States and Habits of Living and Longevity. Published in 1831, this book explored how reducing standing hours, improving ventilation, and limiting work hours could help preserve the health and lives of employees.

While there were businesses that did implement wellness-related practices in the 1800s, it is important to note that such practices were rare and the wellness benefits provided were minimal, especially in comparison to today’s standards.

Wellness programs in the 1900s

In the 1900s, more businesses joined in the growing employee wellness movement, and employee health started to be taken more seriously. In addition to the introduction of the 40 hour work week, many companies began to offer ways to promote their employees’ physical health.

In 1911, the National Cash Register Company improved its employee gym and developed a 325-acre park for its workers. In the 1950s and 1960s, companies like Rockwell, Xerox, and Texas Instruments created employee fitness programs complete with employee fitness centers.

The late 1900s also saw the emergence of organizations designed to help with employee health issues like Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) for combatting alcohol addiction and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) for preventing and reducing workplace accidents and employee sickness.

As employer-sponsored healthcare started to take off during the 1900s, many employers began to realize the benefits of having healthy workers. Providing preventative physical health programs and healthcare benefits for employees helped reduce these corporations’ overall employee healthcare costs.

While there was still a long way to go at this point, this realization sparked changes that continue to this day.

Corporate wellness in the early 2000s

In the early 2000s, many businesses had implemented wellness programs, training, and initiatives, but they mostly targeted employees with the highest risk for health conditions.

In 1979, Johnson and Johnson launched their Live for Life program, which provided a physical assessment for employees and allowed companies to provide wellness support to those with high BMI, poor nutrition habits, and little to no stress management techniques. Shortly after, in 1984, Boeing announced an employee smoking ban preventing employees from smoking in the workplace causing other companies to follow suit. 

Companies largely focused on helping employees who were overweight or who had unhealthy habits that would increase their risk of severe health issues in the future. This approach changed after further research, like Dee Edington’s Natural Flow Model, which showed that wellness programs were beneficial to employees of all risk levels.

Such discoveries led to the emergence of corporate wellness programs geared toward all employees. The focus shifted to raising awareness about health issues and providing opportunities and regimens for all employees to improve their physical health.

Present day corporate wellness

Today, it’s no longer uncommon for corporations to provide some form of wellness program that offers a variety of physical and mental health benefits for employees. It is also becoming more common for the programs that are offered to solely focus on providing health awareness and fitness information.

Typical wellness benefits today include preventative care measures like fitness programs or gyms, immunizations, and health screenings; mental and workplace healthcare like stress management training; and physical health programs like nutrition guides and apps and other programs that encourage healthy lifestyles. Many programs offer fitness challenges with incentives for employees to improve their physical health while others offer discounts for mental health services, meditation apps, and other stress relief resources.

By taking a holistic approach to workplace wellness, employers are able to do their part to combat the physical, mental, emotional, and financial health issues that can take a toll on employees.

Next steps

In today’s society, employers need to provide wellness programs that not only take a holistic approach to wellness but that are also flexible, effective, and tailored toward their employees’ needs.

If your company is interested in promoting employee wellness in a way that is convenient and efficient for both you and your employees, Peerfit provides an all-in-one solution to meet your employee needs when it comes to fitness and wellness.

Peerfit allows employees to have access to all of their favorite fitness studios and gyms through a nationwide Peerfit Network. Whether your employees travel frequently for work or are pressed for time after hours, Peerfit makes it easy for them to find fitness classes that are convenient for their unique schedule.

Start boosting your employee engagement and encouraging your employees to stay happy and healthy by visiting our website today!

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