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Build it and they will come. That advice from Shoeless Joe is the premise of corporate wellness programs. After all, employees want wellness and so, if companies do the right thing, employees will subscribe, right?

Not really.

Studies by Rand Corp. found that American companies spend $50 (U.S.) to $150 per employee each year on programs that target physical health – or an estimated $6-billion a year for the wellness industry over all. But Dan Witters, research director of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, says that only 60 per cent of employees are even aware of their companies' offerings.

"Four in 10 don't even know. That's a startling statistic," he said in an interview. And of those that are aware, only 40 per cent participate. So, over all, just one in four employees take advantage of what their company has built at a time when we are inundated with concerns about stress and workplace pressure.

The programs tend to occur at large companies, he notes, and are focused on physical wellness – dealing with a sore back, stopping smoking, or nutritious eating. But wellness should extend beyond that to our entire self, as well as community wellness, he argues. Indeed, Gallup-Healthways have identified five essential elements of well-being:

Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.

Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life.

Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.

Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community.

Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily.

The five elements are interdependent. In a recent Gallup Business Journal article, Douglas Stover, a senior managing consultant at Gallup, and Jade Wood, the well-being practice manager, write: "If people are struggling in any one of these elements, it damages their well-being and wears on their daily life. For example, consider the effects of not liking what you do each day (purpose) and the impact that would have on your ability to maintain strong relationships (social) or commit to eating well, exercising and getting enough rest (physical). Similarly, money woes (financial) can drain you physically while also perhaps undermining your desire to participate in volunteer or charitable activities (community)."

The easy win for companies, Mr. Witters said, is to simply get more people into whatever programs companies run. But the more ambitious, longer-term goal should be to build more wide-ranging programs that satisfy the broader wellness canvas. If you compare employees who rank high in physical well-being alone with those scoring high on all five factors, the latter will be more productive, less prone to absenteeism, and more likely to stay for the longer haul with the company. "In all ways, they outperform those who just have physical well-being. So if you just think of physical well-being, you are leaving a lot of untapped potential," Mr. Witters says.

Companies also have to look at whether their corporate culture actively supports wellness. Obviously employees will be reluctant to get involved in a wellness initiative if everything else about the company screams the opposite. "You need to flood the zone with wellness," insists Mr. Witters, with leaders at all levels talking about it continually and acting as role models. They must show its importance over the long term, rather than just brandish it as the latest flavour of the month.

That will involve everyone singing off the same song sheet – can't have some managers proclaiming how hallowed wellness is while others are uncaring. Another important factor can be showing interest in the wellness of employees' families, moving the initiative beyond the workplace. "If you care for family members' well-being, people are more likely to believe it and take part in the program," he said.

As in most workplace initiatives, the front-line managers are critical. Gallup has found that those who report to supervisors who walk the well-being walk are 15 per cent more likely to do so themselves six months later. "At your company, do your managers carve out time to take vacation, go to the gym or attend their children's school events? If managers don't do these sorts of things, employees will feel they can't either," the article said.

The manager must be engaged – communicating well on all fronts, encouraging employee development, providing recognition and praise, and caring about subordinates as individuals. In essence, they must be good managers. Engagement and well-being complement each other but neither ensures the other will occur. However, in the right situation, there can be a synergy that leads to great benefits. You build it and they will blossom.

The toughest part of the wellness initiative is getting the leaders on board, Mr. Witters said. But once you do – once they believe, and support the program – he believes the sky is the limit.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter