Create an Employee Wellness Program for Enhanced Health and Savings

October 09, 2018

Organizational well-being begins with an employee wellness program
An employee wellness program can return almost $4 for every dollar spent.

Coworkers discussing health and wellness in a corporate setting.

Kip Soteres

Wellness at work begins with a good employee wellness program that is focused on desired behaviors and outcomes, is easy to participate in and accommodates a good range of your overall company population.

Wellsteps.com suggests that influencing healthier behaviors for even as little as six weeks can significantly reduce health risks. Improvements to wellness at work tie directly to lower costs and improved productivity. A recent Health Affairs article on a Harvard study indicates that "medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent."

Focus on Behaviors

A best-in-class employee wellness program focuses on desired behaviors. Measurable behaviors help employees simplify their goals in ways that typically create longer-lasting healthy habits.

Healthy behaviors might include replacing chips with fruit, or encouraging stretching or walking throughout the day. In contrast, programs that focus directly on BMI or weight loss are generally less effective. Wellsteps notes that, "Wellness programs are very effective at reducing elevated health risks ... but they are not very effective at helping people lose weight."

Avoid à la Carte

Some companies are tempted to provide a wide range of opportunities for wellness at work, but too many options can backfire. The paradox of choice, a concept developed by Barry Schwartz, professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, describes the ways that too many choices can encourage inaction and reduce satisfaction even when a decision is made.

The Wall Street Journal notes that too many 401k options can actually be confusing for employees. This also applies to an employee wellness program — too many options can be overwhelming. Invest in enough options to give reasonable choices appropriate to workforce demographics. In particular, ensure that there are some offerings for all employees, including those with disabilities and special needs.

Position Wellness as a Reward

There are widely differing approaches to incentive wellness programs. WebMD has a helpful list of suggestions. Implicit in that article is the importance of positioning incentives as a positive reward for doing something rather than as a punishment for not participating. The Society for Human Resources Management suggests there may even be a trend away from wellness program incentives, fueled in part by uncertainty about possible future legality issues.

Indirect incentives, including drawings for gym memberships, office exercise equipment like desk bikes, yoga balls or standing desks, or coupons for healthy food options are good examples that reinforce positive behaviors.

Nicotine cessation can be particularly challenging on this front. It is hard to authentically message these efforts as rewards. On the other hand, the American Lung Association notes that a company can save up to $6,000 annually for every employee who quits. Emphasize the tools and resources available to support nicotine cessation, and acknowledge that it takes most people multiple efforts to kick the habit for good.

Set Metrics, Communicate in Sustained Ways

Good communications for wellness begins with established success metrics for participation and completion rates. Pre-surveys can establish benchmarks that will make follow-on surveys more meaningful. Any wellness program will inevitably inspire at least a few employees. Capture those stories and communicate them widely in order to create champions; move the message out of your mouth and into the mouths of your new ambassadors.

It's even better when leaders within the organization take up the wellness banner and organize something specific to their function. Take pictures, encourage a sense of community and camaraderie, and keep creating visible champions to ensure that your programs continue to feel robust and vibrant. Don't expect too much of your initial launch communications. Employees at many companies may need several sustained waves of communications, but things will catch on if you celebrate successes and seed new opportunities at regular intervals.

Together, these ideas can help you develop a robust employee wellness program. Wellness at work is proven to reduce costs and can increase engagement, productivity and profitability.

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