If you want to build a thriving organization, you need healthy, engaged employees. One of the best ways to support the health of your employees and the growth of your company is through employee wellness programs.
An employee wellness program is a program designed to support the health, fitness, and overall wellness of your employees, and they’ve become increasingly important in recent years. “Once viewed as a nice benefit, today’s high-performance organizations recognize that the mental, physical, and emotional wellness of their employees has a tremendous imprint on the company culture, which in turn directs day-to-day and long-term profitability,” said Kimberly Gerber, founder of Excelerate, a corporate training company for communication training and coaching.
Research shows that wellness programs can greatly benefit both employees and employers. However, you can’t just haphazardly throw something together. There needs to be thought and intentionality behind it to make the program truly thrive — and worth both your and your employees’ time and effort. Below, we cover everything you need to know to craft an employee wellness program that will be an all-around success for everyone involved.
Why Wellness Programs Matter
Wellness programs offer a benefit to employees, but they’re just as beneficial from an organizational standpoint. “Companies that infuse wellness into their culture reap the benefits of engagement, innovation, loyalty, productivity, synergy, and higher retention of existing team members,” said Gerber. “Additional benefits include increased employee morale and social connection, not to mention the reduced expenses in recruiting [from higher employee retention].”
There are many reasons organizations should implement an employee wellness program. Here are some of the biggest ones:
- Wellness programs increase employee engagement. In a recent report on workplace wellness programs, researchers from The Economist Intelligence Unit found that wellness programs “increase employee engagement with the company’s mission and goals.” Also significant, this report found that ”employees are...more likely to see their own wellness as being linked with professional success. Companies that build a wellness culture thus acquire a workforce that is not only more focused and engaged, but that sees that culture as benefiting their careers.” When employees feel that their wellness and success are inextricably tied to that of the company and vice versa, it follows that they’ll be more engaged and invested in working hard for the success of their employer.
- Employees want wellness programs — and giving it to them can help with recruitment and retention. According to research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, more than half (59%) of employees believe organizations should play a role in improving worker health, but less than half felt their work environment allowed them to maintain good health. By offering a wellness program, you’re giving employees the health support they want from an employer, which in turn can improve both recruitment and employee retention for your organization.
- Wellness programs improve productivity. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that employees who improved their health and lifestyle by participating in a workplace wellness program showed significant increases in productivity, saving the company an average of $353 of lost work time per person each year.
- Employee wellness programs deliver serious ROI. Wellness programs are an investment — but they’re an investment that pays off in a big way. In research outlined in the Harvard Business Review, which focused on a single employer, doctors found that every dollar invested in their employee wellness program yielded $6 in health care savings for the company.
In addition to improving engagement and productivity (and delivering an impressive return on investment), implementing a wellness program also shows your employees that you’re invested in them and their well-being — which, as a result, can make them more invested in their work and the organization as a whole.
“When employees have wellness programs that work, this sends a powerful message to them that they matter, their needs matter, and their work is highly valued,” said Karlyn Percil-Mercieca, CEO of KDPM Consulting Group and founder of The Well-Being Playbook, an inclusive, diversity-focused digital wellness resource. “Which then, in turn, increases the productivity and performance of that particular individual or group,” she said.
What to Include in Your Wellness Program
Clearly, employee wellness programs can offer significant benefits for both your employees and your organization. As you think about creating and implementing one at your company, it’s crucial to carefully consider what elements it will include. The most successful employee wellness programs address all aspects of employee health: physical, mental, and emotional wellness.
To get you started with some ideas, here are a few components you may want to include in your employee wellness program:
- Team Events and Challenges: Team-focused events and challenges, like offering group training for a 5K or hosting a month-long hydration challenge, can be an excellent way to support employee health and encourage team building to boot.
- On-Site Workshops and Health Offerings: If you want your employees to be healthier at work, you need to give them opportunities to improve their health on-site. Providing healthy offerings (like a kitchen stocked with healthy snacks or an on-site fitness space) and events (such as a lunch-and-learn workshop on healthy food prep or an on-site lunchtime or after-work yoga class) at the office encourages participation in your wellness program and infuses wellness into the day-to-day culture at your office.
- Reimbursement for Wellness-Related Expenses: Reimbursing your employees for taking care of their individual wellness (including things like gym memberships, subscriptions to meditation apps, or yoga class packs) can promote their participation in health and wellness activities outside of work hours.
- Access to Mental Health Resources: Mental and emotional health are just as important as physical health. Therefore, it’s important to include access to services targeted to your employees’ mental and emotional well-being (like meditation resources or telehealth appointments with mental health specialists) as part of a comprehensive wellness program as well.
Ensuring Your Program Is Inclusive
Health and wellness can be a subjective experience. A wellness program that feels exciting and supportive for one employee may feel overwhelming and exclusive to another. That’s why, when you roll out a company-wide wellness program, it’s crucial to ensure that it feels inclusive to all employees. Here's how to accomplish that:
- Ask for feedback. If you want to know what your employees desire out of a wellness program, and how you can tailor it to fit their individual and collective needs, there’s one way to do it: Ask them. “Wellness is personal. What one individual might consider to be a wellness practice others might not,” said Percil-Mercieca. “Getting feedback and keeping an open communication and feedback policy can get all companies one step closer to a more inclusive workplace and wellness culture," she said.
- Offer a variety of ways to participate. Your employees are likely a diverse group, with different levels of health and fitness. Therefore, if you want to create an inclusive wellness program, make sure you offer ways to participate at all levels. “Provide a variety of activities and coordinate pacing groups to allow people to self-select into groups that match their actual [health and] fitness level,” said Gerber.
- Protect employee privacy. Some of your employees may be excited to share their progress and participation in your wellness program, but others might be more private. That’s why it’s crucial to make sure the more private employees have the opportunity to participate in your wellness program, too. “While some employees might be fine being open about their health, it’s important to stay mindful of those who aren’t as open,” said Gerber. “Health can be a very private subject for some, so be sure to stress that their privacy matters and their participation in the program won’t [risk] their anonymity,” she said.
How to Boost Participation
- Set the example. If you want your employees to participate in your wellness program, the leadership team needs to lead by example. “The singular best way to ignite a wellness program is for senior leaders to get out in front,” said Gerber. “When executives get visibly involved in wellness programs, everyone else quickly follows. This has a profound and sustaining impact on the culture and the acceptance of wellness in the company’s DNA,” she said.
- Offer incentives. One of the most effective ways to boost participation in an employee wellness program is by offering incentives. Look for ways to incentivize your employees to engage with your wellness program, like raffling off a fitness tracker for employees who train for a company-wide 5K, or giving them an extra half-day of PTO for participation in a 30-day meditation challenge.
- Be flexible. You might have an idea of what you want your employee wellness program to look like, but if something isn’t working, you need to be flexible and adjust the program to suit your employees’ wants and needs rather than pushing your own agenda. “Be open to new ideas and try implementing them as beta tests,” said Gerber. “At the end of the day, if employees don’t enjoy the program and see its benefits, they aren’t going to engage in it.”
Wellness Programs in the Time of Coronavirus
As of this writing, the United States (and the world) are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing measures are in full effect and all non-essential workers are being mandated to work from home.
Clearly, these unusual circumstances can throw a wrench in traditional wellness programs, but it certainly doesn’t have to put a halt to them altogether.
“With the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re seeing lots of companies operating from home.
However, that doesn’t mean that employee wellness programs must be canceled,” said Gerber. “In fact, with self-quarantining in place, these types of programs are more important now than ever.”
Look for ways to adjust your employee wellness program to support your team as they work remotely (for example, offering reimbursements for virtual fitness classes). Additionally, you’ll want to keep your employees connected and engaged with your wellness program while they’re working from home.
“Working remotely can sometimes feel isolating for employees. So, to keep the wellness programs moving, build in time where employees can jump on a conference call and check in on each other’s health initiatives during this time,” said Gerber. “Not only does it keep people on track, it also allows your team to connect socially during a time where people are starting to feel alone,” she said.
During the current COVID-19 outbreak, it’s also more important than ever to incorporate ways to support your employees’ mental and emotional health and wellness. “This crisis has provided a unique opportunity for organizations to revisit their wellness program and think more about what new needs can be added to alleviate the stress and anxiety being brought to the forefront,” said Percil-Mercieca. “[That] could mean a more flexible work situation, and more access to both traditional and non-traditional forms of virtual mental and emotional support,” she said.
Wellness programs are incredibly beneficial for the health of your employees and your organization. Now that you know how to build and implement a successful and inclusive wellness program, all that’s left to do is get out there and create a program that supports your employees’ health and wellness — and watch your organization (and its people!) thrive as a result.