The difference between white and blue-collar employee wellbeing

Many companies now have a keen interest in employee health and wellbeing. Offering an array of wellness programmes squarely aimed at improving nutrition and physical fitness and reducing tobacco use, stress levels, and chronic disease…

Getting people to use these programmes is a constant struggle, however, with participation routinely clocking in at less than 50 per cent of eligible employees. Part of the issue may come down to design. A 2013 study from RAND revealed how job demands affect employees’ ability to partake of what’s on offer. The study found that blue-collar workers, in particular, can’t take advantage "because of rigid work schedules".

This finding probably squares with your perception and personal experience. If you’re a white collar worker, or what’s been termed a "knowledge worker", chances are you’re stationed in front of a computer. You have standard office hours and some autonomy. You can hold a walking meeting to review next steps on a project, and chances are you even have a level of flexibility, whether or not you’re a telecommuter, that allows you to squeeze in a middle-of-the-day workout or accompany your kid to the doctor or on a field trip. Then again, you’re exposed to a constant onslaught of email and the idea of a clear separation between the work day ending and life beginning is but a dream.

Blue collar? You’re in the field, on the road, beside a production line. You can’t show up for a noontime lunch and learn because your lunch is in the wee hours of the third shift. Your coworkers overexpose you to second-hand smoke; your daily routine underexposes you to the intra- or internet.

If you’re following policy, your phone’s not in your possession, but in your locker. When you grab it during your 15 minute break, signing on to company sites to gather information, take a quiz, or complete a task doesn’t rank as high as responding to a text message, scheduling appointments, or surfing social sites.

These differences in work realities make tackling wellbeing a challenge for any employer. Add in differences in wages, lifestyle habits, and job security between white and blue-collar workers and you have the makings of substantial differences in employee health, with blue-collar workers more likely to face challenges with tobacco use, obesity, heart disease, and depression. In its average scoring of well-being by occupation, Gallup finds blue-collar workers have been at the bottom of the heap from 2008 to 2013. It’s insufficient to schedule a series of Zumba classes, design a "biggest loser" competition, and call it a day. 

Richly appointed wellness portals do help address these obstacles. Suddenly, disparities in access evaporate and personalized experiences materialize. Individuals can join challenges and groups matching their interests and availability. They can tie in to a coaching session and see a doctor via chat. Information and nudges are targeted to the right user at the right time, often based on their receptivity. 

And, it’s all available from any device at any time, making access a 24/7 phenomenon and use during a 15 minute shift break less critical. These portals are a step toward leveling the playing field.

An even bigger step is taken when companies focus on environment, culture, and values over participation in a programme. When all systems point to health, making the healthy choice is a no-brainer. Some of the more visible ways include cafeterias designed to market and promote healthier foods, and physical office environments designed to increase movement. At a deeper level, employers can organize jobs that foster autonomy, purpose, and flexibility; create a physical environment designed for energy, replenishment, and safety; and provide benefits and resources that are affordable, accessible, and foster security.

Through this broader definition and approach, well-being is baked in, not layered on. That’s how you level the well-being playing field - no matter the collar color.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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