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Workplace wellness programs

Lunchtime yoga classes, on-site counselors, smoking-cessation counseling — these employee benefits are rapidly becoming standard among U.S. employers despite the weak economy. In fact, 74 percent of U.S. companies offer some sort of health and wellness program, according to a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The reasons aren't altogether altruistic: By improving employee health, companies can improve productivity and reduce health-care costs, says David W. Ballard, PsyD, head of APA's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program.

"Employers are realizing that a psychologically healthy workplace enhances organizational performance, benefiting both employees and the organization," he says.

As companies invest serious money in wellness programs such as on-site medical screenings and low-cost vaccinations, group exercise programs and mental health services, psychologists can play a valuable role in helping ensure these programs improve the company bottom line and worker well-being, Ballard says.

"All of the major issues that organizations face — whether it's skyrocketing health-care costs, global competition, employee engagement, incentive design or productivity — are related to psychology, which means businesses are realizing there are a variety of ways that psychologists can add value," he says.

Why It's Hot

Preventable diseases, such as heart attack and stroke, cost businesses an estimated $151.5 billion in lost productivity, according to a 2009 American Heart Association report. Across the board, the typical employer loses an average of $2,598 per worker per year due to health-related absenteeism and "presenteeism" (when an employee is at work but at diminished capacity due to mental or physical stress), according to Cornell University economics professor Sean Nicholson, PhD.

At the same time, he said, health insurance rates continue to rise an average of 5 percent to 10 percent a year, and these costs begin to cut into either profits or wages.

Businesses are also heeding these numbers and as a result, employee access to wellness programs has increased by 35 percent since 1999, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, medical costs fell by roughly $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, while productivity losses fell by $2.73, according to a 2010 study in Health Affairs (Vol. 29, No. 2).

The trend toward workplace wellness program is likely to continue, says Ballard. "This is an area that is poised for growth."

What You Can Do

Psychologists who develop health and wellness programs work in a variety of settings — including as direct service providers for large companies, as researchers at universities and as top-level executives for consulting firms. In any of these settings, you may design new programs, or adapt proven programs to new industries. At private companies, you may also coordinate counseling and outreach services and help companies choose which wellness programs to use. You're also likely to draw upon your research skills to prove programs' effectiveness.

Psychologists at large firms meet with clients and academic partners to develop and evaluate programs for specific clients.

One such company is Healthways, which works with government and private employers as well as more than 100 health plans around the country, says Lindsay Sears, PhD, a principal investigator for the company's Center for Health Research. "I like the interdisciplinary nature of my job, and the real-world challenges that can be investigated," she says.

Earnings Outlook

Psychologists who work as workplace wellness consultants are among the best paid in the field, says Ballard. "Direct clinical service providers tend to be at the lower end, in terms of compensation," he says. "Organizational-level interventions fall outside of the third-party payment system, and this type of work tends to be compensated at higher levels." The median starting salary for applied psychology, including wellness-program administration, is $73,332 in all settings, and $75,000 in consulting firms, according to a 2009 report by APA's Center for Workforce Studies. In addition, the 2010 mean earnings for I/O psychologists in consulting services ranged from $69,650 in academic environments to $158,610 in private consulting services, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Earning the biggest paycheck are psychologists who run wellness-consulting companies, says Ballard. "Executive-level positions in this area are compensated particularly well, relative to other types of psychology positions."

How to Get There

Enroll in an I/O or occupational health psychology doctoral program, experts advise. Other psychology programs can also lay the groundwork for a career in the field, especially if you take courses in industrial health and epidemiology, which prepare you to research and analyze public health problems and treatments. You'll also need courses in advanced statistical methods so you can determine how well your programs are working.

Since many wellness program administrators work closely with company leaders and executives, psychologists also need to learn to "speak the language of business," Ballard says. Classes in management and business administration are essential, particularly if you have your eye on an executive-level position.

On-the-job training is also critical. "In my final year of graduate school, I participated in a yearlong internship consulting in the HR department of a Fortune 100 company," Sears says. "The mentorship, knowledge and management skills I gained helped position me for the working world."

Internships within consulting firms are becoming more useful, as well. An entire industry has sprung up around workplace health promotion and wellness, says Ballard. An internship with a large, established consulting firm can be a crucial inroad to landing a postgrad job designing programs for major corporations, he says.

Pros and Cons

Though businesses are increasingly aware of wellness programs' benefits, they are often ignorant of psychologists' wide-ranging expertise in designing and implementing them.

"Business leaders assume that all I'm interested in is mental health issues in the workplace," says Ballard. "While these are important, they represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of what psychology can bring to the table."

As a result, it's often your job to communicate your skills and how you can apply them to improve worker well-being, health and productivity, says Sears. "You may need to do deeper research into the industries that are out there, and be able to articulate how you can add value internally — leading HR or benefits/wellness groups — or externally, such as consulting to HR departments and providing services."

Enthusiastic companies can present a different sort of problem, says Nicholson. "We often see a growing excitement for a certain technology that will be effective at controlling costs in the workplace, and everyone rushes in to try it," he says. "Eventually, people realize it's harder than they thought, and they pull out." One way to keep businesses on track is to conduct solid studies that demonstrate the direct effects of wellness programs on employee retention and productivity, Nicholson says.

Ultimately, the field is ideal for those interested in working in public health and hoping to engineer holistic health programs on a large scale. Companies are realizing that there are evidence-based practices to help with industrial safety, health promotion, work-life balance and even workplace conflict and aggression, says Sears. "I love tackling really challenging research questions, finding the answers, and sharing the results with others, especially when the research might improve people's lives," she says.


Emily Wojcik is a writer in Northampton, Mass.

Further Resources

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  • Bennett, J., & Lehman, W. (2003). Preventing Workplace Substance Abuse: Beyond Drug Testing to Wellness. Washington, DC: APA.

  • Klarreich, S. (Ed.). (1998). Handbook of organizational health psychology: Programs to make the workplace healthier. Madison, CT: Psychosocial Press.

  • Quick, J., Quick, J., Nelson, D., & Hurrell, J. (1998). Preventive Stress Management in Organizations. Washington, DC: APA.