Workplace Wellness

Wellness Programs Work Best When Combined With These Six Strategies

Written by Kate

Most companies understand that unhealthy and unhappy workers are not ideal. Aside from how unappealing it is to spend an entire work day alongside a grumpy person, said grump can also cost employers lots of money. If left unaddressed, prolonged unhappiness at work can lead to work-related stress, burnout, depression, and a host of other mental health issues. According to the American Institute of Stress, “depression-induced absenteeism costs US businesses $51 billion a year, as well as an additional $26 billion in treatment costs.”

To address this pervasive challenge, many employers have embraced workplace wellness programs. In the US alone, employers have spend an estimated $8 billion annually on wellness programs and features like health risk assessments, gym memberships, wellness apps, EAPs, and workplace counseling. Here’s a snapshot of the wellness programs landscape in the US according to the Kaiser Family Foundation 2023 Employer Health Benefits Survey:  

  • 36% of small firms and 54% of large firms offer health risk assessments
  • 15% of small firms and 42% of large firms offer biometric screenings
  • 62 of small firms and 80% of large firms offer a program in at least one of these areas: smoking cessation, weight management, and behavioral or lifestyle coaching
  • 36% of small firms and 64% of large firms offer disease management programs

So, how impactful are these programs? 

Potential Benefits and Limitations of Wellness Programs

The effectiveness and value of wellness programs have been debated. On one hand, studies support the effectiveness of these programs. In a 2019 Harvard study, workplaces with a wellness program reported an 8.3% higher rate of physically active employers than those without. They also reported a 13.6% higher rate of employees who reported actively managing their weight. 

In another study, researchers found that companies that offer wellness programs experience an average 30% reduction in workers’ comp and disability claims, a 28% reduction in sick leave, and a 26% reduction in medical costs. 

Wellness programs also yield a 10% increase in productivity. Employees generally view wellness programs favorably, with 69% saying they would join an optional program and 45% stating it would keep them at a company. 

Finally, a widely cited study by Baikcer et al. found a $3.27 and $2.73 reduction in medical and absenteeism costs, respectively, for every $1 spent on wellness programs.

On the other hand, some argue that wellness programs are not as valuable as claimed. A Harvard Business Review article that touted a 6:1 return on investment for wellness programs has been proven inaccurate. In a new Oxford University study, William Flemming questions the utility of individual-level wellness interventions, joining many researchers who’ve raised the question in recent years. 

value of wellness programs

Why Some Workplace Wellness Programs Miss the Mark

Considering the amount employers spend on wellness annually, it’s important to consider the evidence carefully. Some wellness programs do, indeed, fail. The question is: why? There are several reasons why some wellness programs miss the mark: 

1. Assuming Employees are a Monolith

A wellness program that assumes every employee has the same needs as their colleagues will fail before it starts. Even if they present with the same problems, the underlying drivers, or social determinants of health, will differ. Wharton management professor Iwan Barankay said it best: “What we need to do is listen to our employees. We have to talk to them and understand the barriers preventing them from engaging with the program.”

2. Failure to Address the Root Causes 

Using a wellness program to solve organizational issues like low employee engagement won’t work unless you address the root causes of the problem. For example, no amount of mindfulness breathing will improve the mental health of an overworked employee. Similarly, a gym membership can’t fix a toxic work culture. Unless the root is addressed, every intervention will just be another band-aid solution – ineffective and costly in the long run. 

3. Unhealthy Blame Shifting

Most ineffective wellness programs have one thing in common: they try to “fix” employees instead of empowering them. Christina Maslach, social psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts on burnout, believes employers are approaching the issue from the wrong angle. 

“When we just look at the person, what that means is, ‘Hey we’ve got to treat that person.’ ‘You can’t work here because you’re the problem.’ ‘We have to get rid of that person.’ Then, it becomes that person’s problem, not the responsibility of the organization that employs them,” she expressed in a Harvard Business Review interview. 

4. Poor Intervention Design

Poorly designed wellness interventions are less likely to achieve the desired outcomes. For instance, wellness programs that are not based on proven behavioral science principles and best practices will not promote lasting lifestyle changes. Similarly, inappropriate or ineffective delivery methods (e.g., boring lectures, impersonal or irrelevant online modules) can lead to low participation and engagement.

5. Lack of External Motivation

While internal motivation is key in sustaining behavior change, external motivators can encourage initial participation and engagement in wellness programs. The absence of meaningful incentives (e.g., discounts, rewards, recognition) can reduce the perceived value and appeal of participating in wellness activities. If there’s no visible support and participation from senior leadership, employees may perceive wellness initiatives as low priority or unimportant.

discussing strategies for wellness program success

Six Strategies to Maximize the Effectiveness of Workplace Wellness Programs

If rolling out a wellness program alone isn’t enough to drive employee engagement in healthy habits, what can companies do to drive wellness outcomes and returns on their investments? To maximize the impact of your wellness program, you must combine it with the following:

1. Data-Driven Strategies

As previously mentioned, employees are unique individuals with unique needs. For best results, gather data on specific health risks, interests, and preferences. Launch surveys, health risk assessments, or focus groups. Take the responses into account and then use them to design relevant, culturally appropriate, and truly impactful wellness programs that address the specific needs of your workforce. 

2. A Comprehensive and Multidimensional Approach

As highlighted in the Harvard study mentioned above, effective programs address multiple dimensions of well-being, like physical activity, nutrition, stress management, mental health, and disease prevention. Where the lifestyle management component fails, disease management won’t. 

3. Leadership Support and Participation

It’s been said before, “A fish rots from the head down.” If you want your wellness program to work, ensure there’s leadership buy-in across the organizational structure. Active involvement and visible support from senior leaders can significantly increase employee engagement and reinforce the importance of wellness initiatives.

4. A Supportive Workplace Culture

To reiterate, employee wellness isn’t an event; it’s a process with stages and roles. And while an employee has their own role to play, the overall workplace culture can either boost their efforts or derail their progress. As a leader, it’s your role to foster an organizational culture that values and promotes employee well-being through policies, environmental changes (e.g., healthy food options, active workstations), and positive messaging. Without these, the wellness program will just be a band-aid solution to a long-term problem. 

5. Meaningful Incentives

Use incentives to nudge employees towards healthy behaviors. Offer valuable incentives, such as discounts on health insurance premiums, gift cards, paid time off, or recognition programs, to encourage participation and sustained engagement. As we’ve said before, incentives are not only a powerful motivation tool but also evoke a sense of excitement and commitment in employees.

6. Technology and Mobile Solutions

Since we spend so much time online (an average of six hours and 35 minutes per day), why not use tech to boost wellness? Incorporate user-friendly mobile apps, wearable devices, and online platforms to deliver content, track progress, and provide real-time feedback and support.

Final Thoughts

Despite widespread adoption of workplace wellness programs, outcomes remain mixed due to differences in employee needs, program features, implementation strategies, and more. For these multitudes of reasons, ensuring wellness program success — bringing positive health outcomes to employees and returns on employer investments — is not easy.

Implementing a wellness program alone will not suffice without alignment with employee needs and a culture beyond the wellness program to support it. For more wellness program strategies, tips, ideas, or insights, read more from our HR and wellness blog or feel free to book a call with one of our Benefits Experts.

Corporate Wellness Benefit Managers having a discussion while looking at an electronic tablet.

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