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June 14th, 2013 by

Photo of LaWanda Cook

By LaWanda Cook, Ph.D.

Northeast ADA Center, Cornell University

June is National Employee Wellness month. This annual initiative, now in its fifth year, is designed to help business leaders learn how to successfully engage employees in healthy lifestyles through prevention efforts and supportive workplace communities resulting in improved employee health and productivity, lower healthcare costs, and healthier workplace culture[1].

Employers have recognized the value of investing in employee well-being since the mid- 1900’s when the first Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) were established to address a growing concern about alcoholism in the workplace[2]. Today, EAPs assist employees with a wide variety of personal issues such as financial concerns, eldercare issues, and the challenges of establishing a sense of work-life balance. EAPs represent only one of many ways that employers can help their workforce to maintain good health as the concept of workplace wellness has expanded to include an array of offerings ranging from healthier food options in the company cafeteria, to group fitness classes, workplace weight loss challenges, stress management courses, and mediation workshops. The return on investment (ROI) has been documented to include decreased healthcare costs[3], increased productivity, and improved employee retention[4]. Additionally, workplace wellness programming reportedly benefits the emotional and social wellbeing of individuals, enabling employees to better manage the day-to-day stress of the workplace and enhancing employee morale[5].

Clearly workplace wellness benefits both the employer and the employees who take advantage of these offerings. This may be particularly true for individuals with chronic health conditions and disabilities. For example, the rate of diabetes has sharply increased in recent years[6] and wellness offerings such as health-related lectures, nutritional counseling, and opportunities for physical activity in the workplace may help to prevent additional problems that could lead to disablement. For employees who acquire disabilities, the availability of wellness resources may aid in their rehabilitation and ability to better manage life with a disability. For employees with existing disabilities such as those with mobility impairments, use of wellness resources may help ward off secondary conditions, a critical issue given that secondary conditions as well as aging with a disability can lead to these individuals leaving the workforce well before their nondisabled colleagues[7].

Tip: On May 29, 2013, the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration and departments of Health and Human Services and Treasury announced the publication of final rules related to employment-based wellness programs. For more information about the rules and what they mean for employees with disabilities see: EBSA News Release: [05/29/2013]

The Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) recommends several ways to engage employees with disabilities in workplace wellness programs:

Design and Implementation: ODEP recommends working directly with employees with disabilities to develop and modify worksite wellness programming and activities to ensure they are accessible and meet the needs of employees with disabilities.

Inclusive Communication: Employers should also ensure that promotional materials for wellness programming are accessible and inclusive; this includes using images of individuals with and without disabilities in promotional materials, and ensuring announcements are in multiple formats (e.g., large print, accessible electronic format, etc.)

Incentives: ODEP recommends that employers make sure that wellness incentives reward people with a variety of abilities.

Accommodations: Employers should make accommodations, when possible, to ensure employees are able to participate in wellness offerings.[8]

Of course, wellness is much more than physical health. It is the integration of states of physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. Wellness programs that offer services to address a broad range of needs – social, emotional, spiritual, environmental, occupational, intellectual and physical wellness will likely be most beneficial to employees with and without disabilities.

As the American workforce ages and increases in diversity, employers will want to attract and retain the best workers. Workplace wellness offerings that are accessible and welcoming to employees of all levels of ability will be an important factor in accomplishing these goals.

To learn more about workplace wellness and disability, register for “Worksite Wellness, Leisure & Disability” presented by the Northeast ADA Center on Thursday, June 27th from 2-3 PM. The webinar is free but registration is required at www.northeastada.org.


[1] Virgin Healthmiles. (2013). June 2013 marks the 5th annual national employee wellness month at http://www.nationalemployeewellnessmonth.com/

[2] Steele, P.D., & Trice, H.M. (1995). A history of job-based alcoholism programs – 1972-1980. Journal of Drug Issues, 25(2), 397-422.

[3] Goetzel, R.Z., & Ozminkowski, R.J. (2008). The health cost benefits of work site health-promotion programs. Public Health, 29, 303-323.

[4] Principal Financial Group (2010).  The Principal Financial Well-Being IndexSM – Wellness Summary 4th Quarter 2010.

[5] Principal Financial Group (2010).  The Principal Financial Well-Being IndexSM – Wellness Summary 4th Quarter 2010.

Willis North America (2011). The Willis Health and Productivity Survey.

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Percentage of Civilian, Noninstitutionalized Population with Diagnosed Diabetes, by Age, United States, 1980-2011 at http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/prev/national/figbyage.htm

[7] Mitchell, J.M., Adkins, R.H., & Kemp, B.J. (2006). The effects of aging on employment of people with and without disabilities. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 49(3), 145-165.

[8] Office of Disability Employment Policy. (n.d.) Retaining Employees in Your Worksite Wellness Program. Retrieved 5-31-13 from http://www.dol.gov/odep/research/WellnessToolkit.pdf.

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