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Is your employee wellness program up to par?


In the last few years especially, employee wellness programs have soared in prominence. The COVID-19 pandemic and all the stressors placed on workers during this tumultuous time have highlighted how critical mental health, work-life balance and overall wellbeing are. As a result, increasing numbers of employees consider their wellness to be equally important as traditional priorities such as job stability, salary and benefits.

Why do employee wellness programs matter?

There’s a growing body of evidence that employee wellness programs are important and deliver a valuable return on investment (ROI). Their benefits include:

According to an employee survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 62% of employers consider wellness initiatives to be “very important.” In fact, wellness programs ranked within employers’ top six benefits.

The existence of employee wellness programs may not necessarily make or break a job offer, but they can certainly set your company apart for job candidates when all other factors are equal. In a job market tilted in favor of employees and applicants, a comprehensive and well-executed wellness program may very well tip the scales in your favor.

With this in mind, whether your company has instituted an employee wellness program or you’re thinking about doing it, you may wonder:

  • How do I confirm that what my company offers is desirable to employees?
  • How does my company’s wellness program stack up against our industry peers and competitors?
  • What changes do I need to make so my employees are happier?

Employee wellness programs versus general benefits

First, let’s clarify how wellness initiatives are different from standard employee benefits, such as 401(k) retirement plans, paid time off (PTO) and various types of insurance (health, dental and vision being among the most common).

Employee wellness programs encompass any activity or initiative related to employees’ overall health and well-being, both at work and outside work, including:

  • Physical health
  • Mental and emotional health
  • Social health
  • Financial health

These initiatives are designed to:

  • Educate employees on various health- and wellness-related topics
  • Promote positive, healthy behaviors on a consistent basis
  • Motivate employees to make changes to improve their personal situation, if needed
  • Provide resources that employees can access for more assistance or in-depth information

The overall goal of any employee wellness program is to enable employees to bring their best selves to work, with the potential for sickness, chronic poor health, stress, anxiety or other distractions significantly reduced.

The foundation for a solid employee wellness program

Want to know what many companies are doing to promote wellness? Here’s a list of widely adopted wellness initiatives.

  • An electronic self-assessment tool that asks employees a series of questions about their current health data, lifestyle and habits to deliver an overall snapshot of their health: This tool may help identify where employees might consider making changes. Often, this type of tool is available via your company’s health insurance carrier.
  • Resources with general tips on nutrition, proper sleep, exercise, stress management, etc.: Access to this type of information can guide your team toward healthy practices and habits.
  • An employee assistance program (EAP), which connects employees with tailored resources and professionals covering a variety of topics, from substance abuse to grief and family and relationship issues: With today’s emphasis on mental health, an EAP can be a great resource for getting employees help efficiently and confidentially.
  • On-site clinics or health screenings: These can make it more convenient for employees to prioritize health, if it makes sense for the individual business.

If you implement the initiatives on this list, your company will already be on stronger footing.

A note of caution: Before proceeding with any employee wellness initiative, it’s always a good idea to seek legal counsel for guidance. This is particularly true when activities might involve collecting employees’ health information or tracking health metrics. You don’t want to risk compromising anyone’s privacy or running afoul of federal laws that may apply. And if you do implement a wellness initiative, employee participation should always be voluntary – never required.

Wellness features that go above and beyond

Want to take your employee wellness program to the next level? Here are some of the latest workplace wellness trends that have paid off for some companies:

  • On-site fitness centers or paid gym memberships
  • On-site massages
  • Meditation or rest spaces
  • Various health and fitness challenges, with rewards for meeting goals
  • Additional resources and support for working parents and other types of caregivers
  • Coaching on financial well-being, including guidance on making smart financial decisions
  •  A set number of catered meals for employees each week or month – or even just providing healthy snacks

How does your employee wellness program compare to others?

It can be challenging to find data to compare because companies:

  • Don’t always participate in surveys, which is how comparison data is typically gathered
  • Can have complex, dispersed (national or even international) operations, and their wellness programs can vary according to location
  • All differ based on unique business factors, their workforce and budgets

Other than reaching out directly to individual corporate HR departments to inquire, pay attention to other companies’ job postings and see what they advertise to candidates. You can also review the careers section of other companies’ websites to see the full list of their programs and benefits, if available.

The reality is, there aren’t any etched-in-stone standards. Rather, employee wellness programs tend to be company specific. The exact mix of wellness features that your company provides will largely depend on three factors:

  • Your employee population
  • Your budget
  • Your values

Focus on your company – what makes sense and is working well, what your employees want and what you can afford.

Get started by surveying employees to find out what they like or dislike about your company’s wellness program, as well as any other features or services they’re interested in. You can also provide a tool that allows for ongoing feedback, such as an email inbox dedicated to employee suggestions or a form on the company Intranet.

The true employee wellness differentiators: company culture and good leadership

An employee wellness program is just one piece of what improves working conditions and appeals to new hires, but it’s not the end-all, be-all.

A “competitive” employee wellness program won’t add much ROI if caring about your people isn’t already ingrained in your company culture, core values and leadership.

For an employee wellness program to feel authentic and be meaningful, it should be apparent that regard for employees’ wellbeing permeates every aspect of your company, from the top down.

Consider what your company’s core values are and whether anything important is missing. Assess whether your people practice these core values daily.

Leaders in your organization should consistently display certain behaviors such as:

  • Practice servant leadership – the elevation of team members’ needs above the leader’s and acting as a facilitator and resource in helping employees reach their goals.
  • Communicate transparently.
  • Build trust and respect.
  • Regularly check in with team members on an individual basis to maintain a pulse on what’s going on with them personally and professionally, and find out where they may need help.

Especially in our rapidly changing workplace in which more people work remotely or feel compelled to sit at a computer all day, be mindful of the little things that can improve your employees’ day and alleviate stress. Examples:

  • Evaluate the frequency and length of videoconferences – and whether the camera needs to always be on.
  • Encourage employees to step away periodically for breaks or to get outside.
  • Set boundaries that preserve work-life balance.

Where else should the concept of employee wellness play an important role?

Aside from the implementation of an employee wellness program, there are other ways and areas in which employee wellness should play an important role:

  • Regular assessment of benefits, especially regarding increases in PTO – many employees cite additional leave to rest, recharge and focus on personal matters as one of their most coveted benefits
  • Regular evaluation of workplace policies – and how those policies could be relaxed or altered to benefit employees without negatively impacting your business
  • Integration of workplace flexibility, intended to bestow employees with more autonomy over where and how they work
  • Training and development
    • Ensure there are ample opportunities for employees to learn and grow in alignment with their goals
    • Regularly discuss with employees their career aspirations and goals
  • Team-building activities

The bottom line: It’s the day-to-day employee experience that matters the most. When everything else at your company is outstanding, the employee wellness program should be the cherry on top.

Summing it all up

Employee wellness programs can be an important part of your employee engagement and retention strategy, and in recent years they have grown in popularity as employers recognize their value. However, these programs are likely not the single issue that will ultimately sway new hires to join your company or convince employees to stay for the long term. Your ongoing focus should be on upholding core values, maintaining a wellness-centered culture and training empathetic leaders – all of which reinforce your company’s prioritization of individual well-being.

As you consider how to make your company competitive, ensure that your employee wellness program covers the basics. As you enhance and elevate your program, find out what your employees want and see if it aligns with business needs and budget. Tie everything back to your values and culture. If you’re able to find out what other companies are doing, that can provide additional insight – but it’s not crucial.

Want to learn more about how to offer attractive benefits, perks and programs that will provide value to your workforce? Download our free e-book: The Insperity guide to employee benefits.