The Safety-Wellness Contradiction: Obsessing Over French Fries While Ignoring Motorcycles

There isn't much that's off limits to the typical company wellness program.

Each of them counts activity around the clock. Calories eaten on and off the job. Steps take before, during, and after work. Heart rates monitored constantly. Sleep times and quality. Activities from A (aerobics) to Z (zumba). One app even includes an option to track sexual activity, asking for details of "intensity" and duration.

"The trick to a successful employee wellness program – and healthier employees – is learning how to connect all of the components of employee wellness," wrote contributor Alan Kohll in Forbes. "These components include physical, financial, emotional and social well-being. It's essential for employers and employees alike to understand how these different components of wellness influence one another."

Dialing it up with the adjective "holistic," wellbeing programs increasingly assume a broader swath, taking responsibility for employees to be, as one Society for Human Resources Management report put it, "active, nourished, calm, healthy and balanced."

But they rarely include "safe."

The most recent SHRM benefits survey report mentions "wellness" or "well-being" 28 times. It mentions safety just once, and that's in a line item about bonuses for meeting on-the-job safety goals. The typical wellness program is more forcefully targeted at the long-term effects of eating French fries than at the immediate hazards of driving a motorcycle.

Therein lies a contradiction -- a growing one as wellness programs multiply and delve deeper into employees' lives while safety programs remain largely restricted to working hours. Not one company wellness program limits its jurisdiction to the working hours of the employees. Wellness runs 24/7. Safety runs 8/5 or 10/4 or whatever is the employee's work schedule on a given week, rarely touching the off-the-job hours when the wellness program continues.

At the center of the contradiction is a fundamental question: Is it the responsibility or purview of the company to influence healthy behaviors off the job?

If the answer is no, then wellness programs are sticking their noses where they don't belong.

If the answer is yes, then those wellness programs have a yawning gap, tending to fine points such as mindfulness while ignoring threats to the skull in which the mind is housed.

The reason for the contradiction is that wellness and safety are sponsored by different departments with different ground rules. Aiming to keep a lid on health care coverage costs, human resources over the past decade has expanded its reach to encompass almost anything an employee might do that could affect insurance claims, from tobacco cessation to dental checkups. Safety departments, meanwhile, have largely stuck to the work site, where an accident can shut down production, trigger workers' compensation, or spark an OSHA investigation.

Yet for every on-the-job, lost-time injury, there are three employee injuries away from work, according to the National Safety Council. "For each on-the-job death due to unintentional injuries, there are more than 15 off-the-job deaths due to unintentional injuries," reports the NSC.

The difference in accident rates stands to reason. At a company site, employees are protected by warning signs, alarms, guardrails, training, hard hats, procedures, experienced peers, and safety managers that dramatically reduce the odds of getting hurt or killed. Government inspections, insurance requirements, and the institutional knowledge from past incidents create a discipline that has made the workplace increasingly safe.

But at quitting time, the employer releases its workers into an environment with few of those safeguards. No one ensures that someone steadies the ladder when the employee climbs up to clean the leaves from the gutter, that he wears safety glasses when he fires up the circular saw, turns off his smart phone during the commute, or that he knows what he's doing when he opens the fuse box in the garage. While the goal of a typical safety program is to "send people home in one piece," the statistics show executives should be more concerned they return intact from the weekend.

While a serious accident off the job does not trigger workers' compensation or an inspection, it nonetheless carries high costs -- lost time, overtime, higher insurance costs, rehiring costs, and reduced productivity. The NSC estimates that while 65 million days of production time were lost to workplace accidents in 2015, more than four-and-a-half times as many -- 295 million days -- were lost to accidents when off the clock. Costs in future years also land disproportionately on incidents that occurred during personal time: 625 million days versus 50 million days. These risks and costs are a blind spot in most companies' strategies, rarely well addressed by either corporate wellness or safety programs.

Part of the justification for comprehensive wellness programs is a recognition that what happens away from work affects what occurs during working hours, and vice versa. Healthy habits an employee develops at work, from stand-up desks to fewer meetings with doughnuts, need to continue at home. Otherwise, progress on the clock would simply be lost off the clock. It makes little sense to eat a turkey sandwich and carrots for lunch, then consume a double hamburger and a row of Oreos in the evening. Employers are not concerned where or when an employee will have a heart attack, but that she might have one at all.

Particularly given the out-sized risk of accidents away from work, it's time for the same comprehensive principles to apply to safety. Adapting for off hours the same methods used to prevent accidents at work is simply good business -- and the right thing to do. If organizations are going to take a truly holistic approach to wellness, employees' safety away from work is very much the business of leaders today.

Rodd Wagner is a New York Times  bestselling author and executive advisor at SafeStart. He is currently writing his fourth book.

Posted on Jan 09, 2019