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Workplace wellness programs: Are the benefits worth it?


What’s in it for companies that devote time and money to workplace wellness programs? Lower health insurance premiums? Happier, healthier employees?

The benefits of helping employees achieve better health can seem nebulous, and much of the research following such programs doesn’t show a profoundly positive return on investment. Still, employee wellness programs remain popular with businesses and employees alike.

Before you launch a new program or redesign an existing employee health management initiative at your company, here’s what you need to know.

Why devote resources to workplace wellness?

Historically, workplace wellness programs focused on cost containment as their sole reason for existence.

However, it’s difficult to measure ROI because workplace wellness programs usually vary greatly from one company to another, with widely different levels of employer investment and employee involvement.

Research over the years has offered conflicting reports on whether wellness programs actually reduce insurance and workers’ compensation claims. But an article published by the Society for Human Resource Management examines the possibility that recent studies may be underestimating wellness programs.

Rewards beyond immediate savings

As wellness programs expand into more businesses, people are beginning to understand and recognize the broader rewards of such programs – including increased productivity and reduced absenteeism, turnover and disability.

Therefore, many companies have decided that taking some sort of action is worth it for the chance it will curb healthcare and other costs when compared with taking no action.

Contribute to a happier, healthier culture

What’s more, a workplace wellness program can play a big role in your company’s intangible culture of health, safety, productivity and quality of life. Having a program can help you compete for top talent, encourage healthy choices and stimulate peer interaction.

Basically, when you show your staff that you care about them, especially beyond what they contribute to your company, they are happier.

Mutual benefits

This feel-good effect can go a long way with employees. It can impact the way they interact with your customers. It can also affect how many good ideas come out of a brainstorming session. And these are just a couple of examples.

Additionally, focusing on creating and maintaining a healthy, happy company culture may help offset an otherwise limited compensation package.

A holistic view of wellness

To be most effective, your wellness program should focus on all aspects of health – and for all ages and abilities, including everything from exercise and mental health to smoking cessation and healthy eating.

In other words, you want to offer incentives that meet your employees where they’re at in their own wellness journey. For some, that may mean finding ways to build more exercise into their day. For others, it may mean having access to fast-but-healthy recipes to feed their growing family.

Before you develop a workplace wellness program, start by asking employees what features they’d like or use. This will vary wildly by business and even by department.

You may find that everyone likes the idea of contributing to a company cookbook of healthy recipes and a subsidized gym membership, but no one wants to give up the monthly birthday cakes.

Likewise, you may find that no one is excited about the idea of onsite yoga classes, but they’d love for you to provide an app that reminds them to take stretch breaks. Both options can help them achieve similar goals, but the idea is to tailor your wellness program to employee preferences.

Until you ask, you don’t know – so ask and you’ll improve the chance employees will partake of the offerings. Finally, when designing program features, don’t forget your remote workers. Make sure some, if not all, can be accessed by everyone, no matter where they live and work.

Keep employee wellness top of mind

Even if you offer a robust workplace wellness program, it’s of no use to your employees unless they take advantage of it. Help them get the most from your program by reminding them of its features and incentives.

This can be as easy as reminders in the quarterly employee newsletter, posters in the break room or verbal reminders during team meetings.

Reminders are also important because, let’s face it, most attempts to improve health require multiple starts and stops. For example, people often repeat smoking cessation classes several times before the new habit takes hold.

Positive reinforcement and ongoing reassurance that you’re “all in it together” can help motivate employees to stay on track.  And, support from multiple sources is a proven technique for reaching goals.

Ideas to improve workplace wellness

Start small, but do try something new. You want to implement changes that your employees will notice and hopefully get excited about. And don’t limit your approach to corporate wellness to just physical fitness. Complete wellness encompasses both physical and mental well-being.

There are many low-cost ideas that can help you build your company’s employee wellness program, even on a tight budget:

  • Encourage employees to take walk breaks and to use the stairs.
  • Negotiate a corporate discount for gym memberships.
  • Ask your vending machine company to add healthy foods.
  • Provide fruit, vegetables, popcorn and other healthy snacks.
  • Host healthy lunch-and-learns on a variety of topics, from financial wellness and nutrition to local history.
  • Remind employees to stay hydrated, and install filtered drinking fountains or water coolers.
  • Allow flex hours to promote work-life balance.
  • Institute a summer Friday program, so employees can leave early on Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
  • Start a community library or organize a company book swap.
  • Provide access to an employee assistance program (EAP).
  • Put up posters that illustrate a desk stretching routine.
  • Establish a designated break time or coffee time to encourage breaks and build camaraderie.
  • Subsidize personal development with memberships for online learning and reading.
  • Try a no-talk Tuesday, where from 9 a.m. to noon all employees are banned from scheduling meetings and are encouraged to not interrupt one another.
  • Encourage lunchtime (or after-hours) walks by sharing information on local parks and walking paths.
  • Send out regular emails on subjects targeted to your workers, such as ways to reduce computer eye strain, forklift safety, proper lifting techniques, or how to combat seasonal affective disorder.

With a little creativity, the possibilities are endless.

A word to the wise

While the ideas above are fairly low-risk in addition to being low-cost, be aware that some wellness program activities can open you up to increased liabilities.

For example, if you host a massage therapist at a wellness fair, and an employee gets injured, it could result in a workers’ compensation claim. And collecting medical information on your employees from health screenings or health risk assessments could expose you to discrimination charges.

Workplace wellness programs should also be based solely on voluntary participation. Avoid implementing programs with activity- or outcome-based requirements, as these are subject to a host of additional requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

For these reasons, before implementing a new wellness program, or beefing up an existing one, you should involve your legal counsel.

Your benefits package doesn’t have to be expensive or hard to manage. Find more ideas for improving the well-being of your workforce when you download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to employee benefits.