A “culture of health” is something that most employers desire — but often lack — for their workplace.

A poll by Optum, a health care technology consultancy, found that while 64 percent of large employers say that creating a culture of health (COH) in the workplace is a top priority, only 19 percent say they have succeeded in producing an environment in which employees “have the resources, tools and a support system that empowers and motivates them to take responsibility for their own health.” 

The survey asked benefit professionals at 545 U.S. companies to rate their workplace’s culture of health on a scale of 1 to 7. The survey sought to identify the differences between highly-rated and low-rated companies. 

The most easily-identifiable difference between the two groups is the number of wellness initiatives. Employers with high ratings offered an average of 10 wellness and health management programs, compared to seven for those with low ratings. Similarly, nearly half of those with high ratings have offered such programs for at least five years, compared with only a quarter of low-ranking companies. 

Among the key differences in wellness offerings: 

  • 72 percent of COH companies offer wellness coaching, compared to 42 percent of non-COH companies. 

  • 72 percent of COH companies offer health risk assessments, versus 49 percent of non-COH companies. 

  • 52 percent of COH companies offer biometric screenings, compared to 33 percent of non-COH companies. 

  • 53 percent of COH companies offer programs geared towards social health, compared to 16 percent of non-COH companies. 

  • 76 percent of COH companies offer behavioral health programs, compared to 56 percent of non-COH ones. 

  • 65 percent of COH companies offer financial incentives for health outcomes, compared to only 32 percent of non-COH employers. 

  • The average financial incentive for COH companies was $576 per participant, compared to $336 for non-COH ones. 

The upshot is that companies that aggressively invest in wellness programs report better results from their health-oriented initiatives. While 56 percent of COH employers report that their wellness programs have led to higher employee satisfaction, only 15 percent on non-COH employers believe the same is true for their wellness initiatives. 

While COH companies were ahead on all wellness measures examined, there are still some obvious areas of improvement for all employers. 

For instance, even among companies that rated their culture of health highly, only 48 percent offered employees financial health education. Only 46 percent of COH employers say that their employees are taking more responsibility for their health and wellbeing, a figure that is still far superior to the 11 percent of non-COH employers who said the same thing. 

While some businesses may be looking for a quick fix to cut health costs or boost employee productivity, there’s no easy way to create a culture of health. 

“Building a culture of health takes time, active leadership engagement, changes to the physical environment, organizational policy and cross-departmental collaboration, all of which go beyond day-to-day activities,” said Seth Serxner, chief health officer at Optum. 

Asked whether some businesses may not be equipped to make the investments needed to create such an environment in the workplace, Serxner argued that the perception that health-oriented initiatives are unnecessary is short-sighted. 

“The drawbacks might be perceptual in that investing resources in the culture might not be viewed as dealing with an immediate business priority, when in reality the investment in culture will make a difference in a competitive environment,” he said.