Employee Wellness Program Ideas that Improve Workplace Health

November 20, 2018

Workers in a busy office
Workplace wellness programs can improve both morale and productivity.

Workers in a busy office.

Jonathan Thompson

Over the past few decades, there has been increased emphasis placed on the role that employee wellness programs can play in health promotion and disease prevention. In reality, these programs have had varying degrees of success. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which looked at over 30 years of workplace wellness efforts, there are specific factors that should be considered when designing these programs.

So, what works? What doesn't? And are there any specific employee wellness program ideas that are particularly effective?

The Benefits of Employee Wellness Programs

Before delving into the details of how to plan and execute a workplace wellness program, it's important to be clear on the potential value of these initiatives. In its examination of wellness programs, the World Health Organization (WHO) has defined several benefits of workplace health promotion to both the organization and the employee.

For the most part, these programs offer significant savings for employers — based on reduced health care costs and even reduced risk of litigation. But companies that implement wellness efforts also see improved morale and productivity, as well as reduced staff turnover and absenteeism.

What about the workers? What do they gain from wellness promotion in the workplace? Generally speaking, employees in this environment enjoy their jobs more, experience less stress, have a better sense of overall well-being and are typically healthier. Interestingly, WHO reports that these benefits are more pronounced for low-paid workers who operate in high risk occupations. When properly designed, then, these efforts at health promotion and disease prevention in the workplace can help the entire organization in numerous ways.

Which Employee Wellness Program Ideas Work?

Based on decades of research on workplace wellness, one major principle has emerged: Avoid making employees feel alienated or targeted. Initiatives that encourage workers to make specific lifestyle changes — whether it's weight loss or learning some new habit — typically feel invasive and controlling. By making employees carry the burden of change, wellness promotion programs could even have a negative impact on morale — the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish.

It's important to realize, however, that these negative emotions can come from different sources, some of which might seem counterintuitive. For example, financial incentives may seem like a great idea, but in reality this technique does not cause long-term improvements in employee well-being. This technique can even make some employees feel discriminated against, according to The New York Times.

Rather than trying to push employees to change, research shows that successful employee wellness program ideas are designed to foster a culture of well-being in the workplace. In order to successfully promote wellness, here are a few time-tested improvements employers can make.

  1. Encourage Activity: Due to an increased understanding of the dangers of sitting all day, alternative workstations have become increasingly popular. This could include everything from ergonomic chairs to standing or even treadmill desks. These products — which improve posture, reduce back pain and enhance productivity — should be readily available to employees who want them. Similarly, many companies now provide gyms in the workplace or work out a deal with local gyms for employees to receive discounts.
  2. Provide Healthy Food: The office environment is notorious for being a haven of convenient but less-than-healthy foods. While these snacks are cheap and fast, they do not support a culture of wellness and can even negatively impact productivity by contributing to late-afternoon blood sugar crashes. Simply providing fruit or other healthy options is a subtle way to help workers make better dietary decisions throughout the day without having to make a special effort.
  3. Don't Discourage Vacation Time: Although many employees do receive some form of vacation time, actually using those days may prove difficult. Generally, this is because of the attitude fostered in the workplace. People are sometimes made to feel lazy or guilty for taking time off, even when they've earned it. This approach, though, can lead to burn-out, low morale and even physical illness. Instead, employees should be encouraged to use their vacation days as opportunities to de-stress and recharge.

To be effective, workplace wellness programs do not need to be sweeping reforms and should not put more pressure on workers to meet certain expectations. Instead, gradual changes can be made that build a healthy, enjoyable culture in the workplace.

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