Keeping workers healthy, happy and at work through so-called wellness programs remains a priority for many companies despite financial pressures from the global economic downturn, a survey found on Monday.

Globally, most employers offer at least one program -- ranging from a flu shot to gym discounts -- to ward off health risks such as poor nutrition, obesity, inactivity and stress, said the poll by human resources firm Buck Consultants.

Barry Hall, global research leader for Buck, said in the past an economic downturn brought the end of wellness programs and while a quarter of companies said they had been forced to reduce their initiatives, another 19 percent had actually boosted attempts to keep employees healthy.

We're finding that it is by far not the first thing to be cut, he said. The belief and the whole objective and reasons for putting in these programs in the first place are different than they were in the past.

In the past they were thought of as a perk or benefit for people. Today it's much more strategic. It's about how do we get every employee more engaged about their health and their lifestyle, Hall said.

More than 1,100 employers from 45 countries representing more than 10 million workers responded to the online survey, which was offered in 10 languages and answered by senior or mid-level managers with health or wellness responsibilities.

The survey found 64 percent of the employers polled said they had a wellness strategy, up from 60 percent last year and 49 percent in 2007, but two-thirds of those said they had not completely implemented their plans.


Wellness programs are most common in North America, where 75 percent of employers offered them, but are also growing in popularity elsewhere in the world.

A lot of things can play out from having better health and employers are much more cognizant of that, the financial and the business value of that type of approach, Hall said.

In the United States, employers' top aim for wellness programs was to reduce healthcare insurance costs, while everywhere else in the world it was to improve productivity.

U.S. employers are paying on average about 80 percent of the cost of healthcare for their employees, in most other countries employers are paying very little to none of the cost, said Hall. It's not an issue for them, it's a very painful issue for U.S. employers.

Wellness programs are looked at as one way to address that by hopefully driving down some of the demand for healthcare by keeping people healthy, he added.

Stress was the main health risk driving employers in Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada and Europe to implement a wellness strategy, while in Latin America and the United States it was driven by a need to encourage exercise.

In the United States, Latin America and Canada the most popular programs were immunizations or flu shots, while in Africa and Asia biometric screenings were favored. In Europe discounts on gym memberships were No. 1.  

The fastest growing programs were cycling to work in Asia, Latin America and the United States; caregiver support in Africa; personal health/lifestyle coaching in Canada; and an emphasize on healthy food in vending machines in Europe.

The survey found only 22 percent of employers use financial metrics to validate the success of their wellness programs.