According to new research funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, whether workers participate in workplace wellness programs may have a lot to do with how their jobs are designed.

Workplace wellness programs often offer an array of health-improvement activities, including courses to quit smoking, exercise or physical fitness classes, nutrition or stress management education, and ergonomic testing of work conditions and equipment.

In 2017, 39% of private industry workers and 63% of state and local government workers had access to such programs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, access does not always mean that employees use these programs.

Key Factors

To understand obstacles to participation, NIOSH-funded researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the University of Connecticut explored six factors: job demand, job control, social interactions, leadership, role expectations, and predictability at work.

They used surveys, interviews, and focus groups to identify which factors affected participation in workplace wellness programs among 343 employees at a public university in New York.

Of the six factors, job control was the most likely to improve participation in workplace wellness programs, followed by social interactions and then job demand, according to the study published in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health.

Job control refers to the freedom to choose when and how to complete work. This can include providing flexibility to make time for doctor’s appointments, exercising, or meeting with a nutritionist without worrying about work schedules.

The supervisor-employee relationship was found to play a critical role in employee participation in workplace wellness programs.
Social interactions include support from coworkers and management, which reflects employees’ satisfaction with their relationship with their supervisors. This supervisor-employee relationship was found to play a critical role in employee participation in workplace wellness programs.

Job demand is defined as the worker’s perception of the job’s physical and mental demands. Study participants with either low or high levels of job demand reported increased participation in workplace wellness programs. Researchers found that workers with increased job demands participated in these programs to relieve stress.

The findings suggest that successful workplace wellness programs should also address the way jobs are designed to remove any barriers to participation, especially offering flexible work hours and supervisory support.

This article is based on materials provided by NIOSH. Content has been edited for style and length.