Take a moment to think about a day you’ve felt most productive and happy at work. What factors do you feel contributed to your heightened productivity? Maybe you got a great night’s sleep and ate a healthy breakfast. Maybe you’ve been going to the gym consistently and the endorphins are starting to kick in. Maybe you went for a run or meditated that morning and you’re feeling mentally refreshed.
It’s no secret that when we make healthy choices and invest our time and energy into our physical and mental well-being, the benefits are endless. Exercise, a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, stretching and practicing mindfulness are all things that help us to be more focused, have more energy and increase our moods. So it makes sense that employers would want their employees to live healthy lifestyles, right?
In this article, we’ll be discussing all the ins and outs of employee wellness programs such as how they got started; why they’ve become so popular; different types of wellness programs and how to establish and measure a successful wellness program.
1. What is a wellness program?
The concept of employee wellness has been around for centuries, but only recently has it been popularized and implemented in the modern workplace. An employee wellness program includes any activity designed to support better health at work to improve health employee performance, productivity and satisfaction. Work is where most of us spend about two-thirds of the time we’re awake throughout the day, 5 days a week. If we’re not feeling our best, both physically and mentally, our performance at work and the balance between work and our personal lives can struggle.
How and When Did They Start?
A Welsh social reformer named Robert Marcus Owen proposed the 10-hour work day. Seven years later, he proposed an even more controversial idea: an 8-hour work day. He even coined the phrase, “eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, eight hours of rest”.
Workplace wellness programs started to appear in academic literature, mainly focusing on the positive effects and benefits of physical fitness improving employee’s health and performance in the workplace. The Journal of Occupational Health also began publishing articles that discussed how corporate wellness programs could directly contribute to reducing absenteeism and healthcare costs, and even potentially attract top talent in 1982.
The vast majority of workplace wellness programs during this time mainly focused on physical aspects of health. It wasn’t until the late 80’s that companies started to normalize and adopt methods that catered to the psychological side of health and well-being.
An initiative by the federal government called Healthy People 2000 was launched. It proposed that 75% of employers with 50 employees or more should offer health services as a benefit. This initiative was an attempt to increase the health of the American population by the end of the century.
Programs during this time mainly focused on three areas:
- Physical Health Education: classes, health fairs, educational pamphlets, posters and other printed materials promoting physical health, nutrition, etc.
- Lifestyle and Behavioral Change Education: Programs implemented for a certain amount of time to give workers educational information, resources and support to implement healthier lifestyles and habits.
- Creating a company culture that supported the education and implementation of healthier lifestyle and behavioral choices workers.
A revised version of the Healthy People 2000 initiative was introduced — Healthy People 2010. It aimed for 75% of workplaces/worksites with 50+ employees to have a “comprehensive health promotion plan” that would consist of five elements:
- Health education
- Supportive social and physical work environment
- Integration of the program into the administrative structure
- Related programs
- Screening programs
Why are Employee Wellness Programs so Popular Right Now?
The increasing popularity of employee wellness programs comes as no surprise for many reasons. In recent years the world has not only embraced mental health as a biological need for all, but it’s also recognized the importance of caring for your mental and physical health to function at your highest capacity.
As society as a whole becomes more familiar with and places more importance on the concept of wellness, it naturally trickles into other areas of life. With all the information accessible to us by a simple Google search, individuals are learning more about the positive effects of investing in their mental and physical health.
As it becomes more important to individuals, naturally that carries over into other areas of their life like school, work, social, etc. In addition to increased knowledge of the benefits investing in wellness provides for individuals, there’s much more data that proves the financial benefits of employee wellness for businesses.
Wellness programs have been proven to increase companies’ bottom lines in direct correlation to decreased absenteeism, increased productivity, employee satisfaction, retention, and lowered healthcare costs for employers.
2. Status-Quo of Wellness Programs?
As mental health becomes more culturally accepted and valued, wellness programs have become a more standard part of modern day corporate culture. But some employers still remain skeptical of the effectiveness and monetary value of implementing an employee wellness program. A majority of the tangible and financial ROI of an employee wellness program require patience and persistence as they may take a generous amount of time to come to fruition. Below we’ll discuss the long-term benefits that can come from a wellness program if implemented strategically and effectively.
3. What is the purpose of a wellness program?
There is an abundance of benefits that a well-designed wellness program provides both employers and employees. Wellness programs motivate employees to make healthier choices like exercise more, get better sleep, eat healthier, etc. These healthier choices over time benefit the employer by increasing productivity, increasing the overall mood in the office, and decreasing costs from absenteeism and healthcare/insurance costs.
Employers may choose to develop and implement an employee wellness program for many reasons, but there are three main reasons employers generally adopt wellness programs.
- To help attract and retain high-quality employees/reduce turnover
- Great benefits that empower employees to improve both professionally and personally are very attractive to job seekers. Offering great benefits attracts higher quality candidates, makes the position more competitive and in turn, enables the employer to be more selective in their hiring process.
- Great benefits also encourage employees to do their best work in order to keep those benefits. Offering great health and wellness benefits is a must in today’s competitive job market if you want to find the best talent for your organization. This can mean reduced turnover for an employer, which can save an organization a large amount of time and money.
- To lower healthcare costs for the organization
- Healthy employees means less visits to the doctor, and in turn means lower healthcare and insurance costs for employers.
- To increase productivity, decrease absenteeism and subsequently raise their bottom line
- We’ve already mentioned this a few times, but healthier people are happier, more productive and more present and engaged people. Another added benefit that is a product of this is a more collaborative and cohesive team. When you design and implement an effective wellness program, it encourages your team to interact more and build stronger relationships.
4. Why are wellness programs important?
As we mentioned above, wellness programs provide a lot of great benefits to both employers and employees, but why are they important? Because they save and make companies a lot of money.
The the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that nearly 60 percent of workers in the U.S. do not get adequate exercise; 50 percent have high cholesterol; and about 26 percent are overweight. It’s estimated that about 70-90 percent of healthcare spending is caused by preventable health risks like these, just by making a few lifestyle adjustments.
Source: Capital Region Chamber
Most employed people in the U.S. spend a majority of their day at work. The culture you establish at your company can either support and empower employees to make healthy decisions or send a message that it’s not important to you, so why should it be important to them?
Studies show that companies with well-implemented workplace health and wellness programs can result in a 25 percent savings on healthcare costs, workers’ compensation and disability, and absenteeism by reducing the risk of highly preventable health issues. Another study from Rand shows that employers who implement a wellness program saw an ROI of $6 per employee per month for lifestyle management programs and $136 per employee per month for disease management programs.
5. What are the different types of wellness programs?
There are seven areas of wellness that individuals can practice to care for themselves. These areas are:
- Physical Wellness
- Emotional/mental Wellness
- Environmental Wellness
- Occupational Wellness
- Social Wellness
- Financial Wellness
- Spiritual Wellness
A corporate wellness program can cater to any seven of these areas, but most wellness programs are generally centered around physical and mental wellness. The type of wellness program a company implements is typically designed around the results they’re trying to achieve with the program.
Employers can gauge the needs, capabilities and interests of each participant by conducting pulse surveys. Employers can use pulse surveys to find out what type of activities those employed at their organization would be most interested in, what areas of wellness they would like to improve on and what would best motivate them to participate in the program.
Some examples of wellness programs include:
- Activity rewards and incentive programs:
- Employees are given some kind of incentive or reward, most commonly monetary, for doing healthy activities like running, hiking, going to the gym etc.
- Reimbursement programs for fitness facility visits, exercise equipment, etc.
- Employees are reimbursed for health and wellness related costs like gym memberships, exercise equipment or apparel, retreats, classes, nutrition supplies, etc.
- Wellness challenges
- Employees compete individually or in teams to reach a certain health, wellness or fitness goal, most commonly for an incentive of some kind.
6. What should a wellness program include?
A wellness program means nothing without the participation of your employees. So, after you’ve set your purpose and goals for your program, your main goal should be to keep people engaged and motivated to participate in the program.
As with any successful program in the workplace, well-planned implementation is key. A well-designed and effective wellness program has the following components:
- Use pulse surveys to help design the program
- Another type of survey that can be beneficial to gauging the needs and measuring the success of your program is a health risk assessment
- A predetermined budget and timeline (unless the program is ongoing)
- Clearly defined and communicated goals, objectives and set of activities
- Effective and consistent communications from admins to employees about the program’s milestones, updates and announcements
- An effective method for measuring success
7. What do employees want in a wellness program?
It’s always important to have a finger on the pulse of the needs and interests of the people employed within your organization. Every workplace is different and every company has its own culture, core values and health needs. So naturally, what employees want out of a wellness program is going to vary depending on your company’s values, culture, location, size, etc.
According to a recent study conducted by SHRM, the main things employees said they wanted out of a wellness program were:
Ease and convenience: Your employees are already busy with the responsibilities of their role. An inconvenient wellness program won’t get much engagement. That’s why pulse surveys are a useful tool to hear directly from your employees what kind of activities they would most prefer and enjoy.
Support and motivation: In order for employees to be compelled to participate in a meaningful way, they need to feel well supported and educated on the purpose of the program. Developing a hub to store educational resources for employees to refer to as well as an effective system for communication will help them to be more engaged and excited about the program.
Education and Customization: Almost three-fourths of employees polled in the study by SHRM said that a “personal touch” was important to them. Employees want a wellness program that will cater to their individual needs, as well as the tools and resources they need to implement long-term change and improvement in their personal health habits.
8. How much does a wellness program cost?
Similarly to what a participant in your program may want, the cost of a wellness program depends on the organization’s specfic needs, culture, values, the amount of people employed, etc. There is no way to implement a successful wellness program for free, so it’s important to consider not only the direct financial costs, but the amount of time and workload required as well.
Generally speaking, wellness programs typically cost employers between $3-$10 per employee per month (PEPM).
Some common costs to consider:
- Incentives: What incentives will you be offering employees to participate?
- Reimbursements: Will you be reimbursing gym memberships, equipment, classes, etc.?
- Software or service: Will you be outsourcing software or service to help manage certain aspects of your program like tracking activities, communication around your program, disbursing incentives, etc.?
Typical time costs and workloads to consider:
- Program management: Who in your company will manage which elements of your program and how much time will they need to allocate to it on a regular basis?
- Employees’ participation: Will you be facilitating any activities associated with your program during work hours? You’ll want to factor that into the cost as well.
9. Common reasons why wellness programs fail?
Wellness programs fail when employees don’t participate. The two best things you can do to avoid low participation for your program are:
- Conduct a pulse survey beforehand to ensure you’re designing the program with your employees interests and needs in mind. Make sure the activities and incentives or rewards you’re offering speak to and satisfy the needs and interests of your people.
- Health risk assessments can also help create a program that effectively combats preventable diseases and health issues.
- Make sure you have an effective system for consistent, engaging communication. If you’re not able to send messages that your employees will easily see and interact with, you’re not setting your program up for success.
10. How to measure wellness program success?
A wellness program without proper tracking and measurement of success could be a major waste of time and money for an organization. Before getting started, make sure you have a way to track and verify the activities that people say they’re doing. Confirming employee participation is one of the only immediate results you can see for a corporate wellness program.
Another way to effectively measure success as your program is happening is to conduct periodic pulse surveys. This enables employers to hear directly from their employees if they are satisfied with the program or there’s anything they would like to change or add.
Most of the results that satisfy an employer’s main reasons for conducting a wellness program take a little longer to show. More long-term results can be measured by:
- Comparing employee healthcare costs from the previous year before the program was implemented to healthcare costs after the program has been running for at least one year.
- Comparing the amount of sick and/or personal days taken before and after the program had been implemented.
- Comparing the quality of candidates your organization is attracting before and after your wellness benefit was included in job posts, as well as turnover rate and overall employee satisfaction.
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