Workplace Wellness

What are Corporate Wellness Programs and Why Do You Need Them?

Written by Kate

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Benjamin Franklin famously said in 1736. Although he said this in response to the Philadelphia fires of the 1700s, his point stands in our present world. Take COVID-19, for example. According to the CDC, patients with one or more underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

However, maintaining good health in our predominantly sedentary lifestyle is often easier said than done. How do we achieve the prescribed 10,000 steps daily when we spend over 9 hours behind the desk? How do we avoid type 2 diabetes when meals high in added sugars and saturated fats are more affordable than healthier options?  

Then there’s mental health, affecting at least 1 in 5 adults in the US. This also takes a toll on employers, costing them $47.6 billion annually in mental health-related lost productivity.

Corporate wellness programs help employers improve their employees’ health and well-being in light of the prevailing circumstances. A far cry from the snake oil peddled by “wellness gurus,” these evidence-based solutions are tailored to the realities of the modern workplace. They focus on sustainable lifestyle changes and healthy behaviors in the long run.

Let’s explore how corporate wellness programs work, their benefits to employers and employees, and why they are indispensable in the arsenal of successful companies.

What are Corporate Wellness Programs?

In its simplest form, a corporate wellness program is an employer-led initiative designed to help employees with their overall health and wellness.

By design, corporate wellness programs are solutions to problems or tools to give employees more resilience and energy at work. They address factors such as sleep, rest, energy, fitness, diet, financial, spiritual, mental and behavioral health. Available options for that include:

  • Gym memberships
  • Tuition reimbursement programs
  • Discount on health and wellness services
  • Health risk assessments and screenings
  • Paid time off
  • Remote work options
  • On-site seasonal flu vaccinations
  • Unlimited vacation
  • 401(k) and retirement plans
  • On-site fitness
  • Weight loss programs
  • Access to mental health apps
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Smoking cessation
  • Personal health coaching
  • Telehealth and telemedicine

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation 2022 Employer Health Benefits Survey, American employers have adopted various employee wellness programs.

  • 54% of small and 85% of large firms offer at least smoking cessation, weight management, and behavioral or lifestyle coaching.
  • 40% of small firms and 55% of large firms offer workers the opportunity to complete a health risk assessment.
  • 24% of small and 45% of large firms offer opportunities for biometric screening.
  • 38% of large firms have a biometric screening program. Of these, 57% use incentives or penalties to encourage workers to complete the assessment
  • 87% of small firms and 96% of large firms cover the provision of some health care services through telemedicine in their largest health plan.
  • 44% of large employers offer self-care apps; 81% offer an employee assistance program

Implementing a comprehensive workplace wellness program requires extensive planning and resource allocation. Consequently, different employers offer different wellness programs to suit their employees’ needs, available resources, and budgets. 

What is the Purpose of Corporate Wellness Programs?

nutritional wellness program

Contrary to popular belief, corporate wellness programs are not tools for incentivizing employees (through perks) to stay at work past the point of exhaustion and burnout.

Instead, they are a strategic business investment for forward-thinking employers. They are tools to show you’re not indifferent to the personal struggles of your employees. They communicate that you recognize that your company’s success is intrinsically linked to the well-being of its people.

As such, corporate wellness programs are more than just a perk you offer occasionally. They are an investment in the company’s most valuable asset, its employees. They also come with lots of benefits for both employers and employees.

Control Healthcare Costs                                                                                 

Preventable chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes account for the majority of medical claims in the US. They also contribute significantly to the health insurance costs employers pay annually. In fact, these conditions account for $36.4 billion in lost productivity annually.

 Johnson & Johnson’s success with their robust worksite wellness promotion program is a prime example of the value wellness programs can offer in this regard.

  • For over 30 years, the company has reported a positive return on investment on its wellness program, estimated at $1.88 – $3. 92 for every dollar spent.
  • The company’s total medical costs have also been consistently lower than comparable companies’ by 3.7 percentage points.

A Rand Corporation Wellness Programs study supports these findings:

  • The wellness program in question reduced the employer’s average health care costs by about $30 per member per month.
  • Employees participating in the disease management program component of the wellness program generated savings of $136 per member per month, driven in large measure by a nearly 30% reduction in hospital admissions.
  • Overall, the corporate wellness program yielded an ROI of $1.50 for every dollar the employer invested.

Increase Productivity

corporate wellness programs boost productivity

A stressed-out, overwhelmed workforce is an unhealthy workforce. Do not be deceived by the long hours your employees put in without demanding extra compensation. That’s a lousy measure of productivity!

Overwork may actually reduce cognitive function, thereby decreasing an employee’s productivity. It may also interfere with someone’s personal obligations like childcare, eldercare, social life, and even sleep.  

One third of Americans get less than the recommended 7 hours of quality sleep, increasing their risk for hypertension, coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and stroke. Consequently, there’s higher sickness-related absenteeism among unhealthy workers, costing employers millions in lost productive work time. Corporate wellness programs can help turn the tide, increasing the profit margin by up to 50%.

Improve Employee Morale and Engagement

Employees with better physical and psychological health are often more engaged and vice versa. High employee engagement results in higher productivity, loyalty, and morale.

Healthier employees are also less likely to be distressed and with more morale. They’re more likely to deliver stellar results at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and create value in the workplace.

Conversely, unhealthy, distressed, disengaged employees are a ticking time bomb. Most are coasting by, doing the bare minimum to get by without losing their jobs. These are the people who spend company hours surfing the internet and looking for new jobs.

We also have the sickly and weak who, despite loving their jobs, cannot deliver peak performance. Holding on by a thread, they’re poor collaborators and a major drain on their team’s energy. That’s where wellness programs with a disease prevention component come in.

Reduce Health Risks        

Only 1 in 4 American adults meet the daily recommended physical activity. The others are 30% more likely to develop debilitating chronic diseases like obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular illnesses, and type 2 diabetes.

Confined behind their desks most of the day, corporate employees are also more likely to pick up unhealthy eating habits. Several cups of coffee are a lifesaver when you have a looming deadline. And takeout is a godsend when you have no energy to prepare a salad from scratch.

Unfortunately, this lifestyle is slowly killing us. According to the American Heart Association, 130 million American adults will suffer from cardiovascular disease by 2035. Furthermore, 100.1 million American adults currently suffer from obesity.

These conditions are highly preventable. From introducing healthy meals to providing time off, a few strategic offerings in your corporate wellness program can encourage employees to reverse this trend.

corporate wellness programs boost camaraderie

Attract and Retain Talent

While fair compensation remains a top need for employees, money is no longer the only consideration when choosing a new job. Employee benefits and corporate wellness programs have become a recruitment and retention tool.

According to a Society for Human Resource Management report:

  • 45% of employees would stay longer at their job if their employer offered a wellness program
  • 40% of employees report better performance since the introduction of a wellness program
  • 26% of workers report reduced absenteeism as a result of a wellness program utilization

According to Gallup:

  • 61% of employees want greater work-life balance and flexibility
  • 58% of workers don’t want to be bogged down in unfulfilling tasks at work
  • 42% of workers are looking for inclusive, equitable workplaces.

Other studies confirm Gallup’s findings, emphasizing the need for a human-centered employee value proposition. This underscores the need for a holistic, human-centered corporate wellness program, as we will soon see.

What are Examples of Popular Corporate Wellness Programs?

The wellness space has been fascinating to watch over the past few years, with tech giants leading the innovation and adoption of various products. Here are a few examples of innovative and comprehensive wellness products:

  1. Google

We’ve all heard about Google’s lavish menu. The unlimited healthy snacks and drinks. However, this is just one of Google’s world-class fitness and wellness program. Google provides various wellness services, including on-site physicians, mental health resources, fitness classes, and medical advocacy programs. It also offers financial well-being, family support, PTO, and personal development resources.

  1. Apple

“We see the whole you” is Apple’s promise to their employees. To that end, Apple’s corporate wellness program includes an array of useful offerings like on-site doctors and nurses, free, confidential counseling, and access to dietitians and acupuncturists. They also offer work-life products, including paid family leave and a gradual return-to-work program.

  1. SAS Institute

This tech company offers a range of wellness services, including an on-site health center, fitness facilities, and work-life balance resources. They also have programs for stress management, nutrition, and weight management. And because they know how important family is to their employees, they also offer subsidized childcare, adoption assistance, and paid maternity and paternity leave.

  1. American Express

American Express’s corporate wellness program offers robust products tailored for today’s employees. 20+ weeks of paid leave for all parents. $70k for adoption and surrogacy. Health assessments, fitness programs, and personalized wellness plans. American Express also offers mental health resources, such as specialized grief and loss support. They also provide a wellness rewards program.

  1.  Chevron

Chevron’s Healthy You and the meQuilibrium (meQ) app are two of the company’s innovative wellness products for its employees. Focusing on the mind, body, and lifestyle, these programs offer preventive health care and provide health-education resources to employees.

What Should You Consider When Designing a Corporate Wellness Program?

As we’ve seen thus far, attaining corporate wellness in today’s environment requires more than offering gym memberships or free snacks.

We need to take a proactive approach to prioritize the health and well-being of the people within our organizations at every level. To do that successfully, we must consider what the employees really need, our company systems, policies, leadership, and even culture.

Employee Needs and Interests

Just because you don’t have Google’s financial muscle doesn’t mean you can’t design an effective corporate wellness program.

Truth be told, few employees would pick a state-of-the-art gym over a flexible work schedule. Given a choice, most employees will choose unlimited vacation time over unlimited snacks.

Is your wellness program just about ticking boxes, or do you really want to effect lasting change in the lives of your employees? If the latter, you must adopt a one-size-fits-one model and take time to identify what your people need. The more relevant the program, the higher the participation rates and the greater the program’s ROI.

Company Culture and Objectives

57% of people leave their job simply because they don’t feel appreciated. Worse still, up to 50% of employees do not feel happy in their current position. While a corporate wellness program can help reverse that, it’s not a magic wand that you just wave and the problem disappears.

An effective corporate wellness program must align with the company’s overall culture and mission. After all, culture is the bedrock of success or failure. For example, offering unlimited company-branded merch to overworked, burnt-out employees won’t yield positive ROI.

By definition, culture refers to the shared values and norms of an organization’s members. Values are what people consider important. Norms are attitudes and behaviors.

New employees inherit a workplace’s culture, so creating a culture of wellness is the first step to success. A positive workplace culture reduces employee stress, increases job satisfaction, and boosts loyalty. This, in turn, helps improve employee health.

Resources and Budget

positive workplace culture

The cost of implementing a corporate wellness program differs depending on the size of your organization and the number of employees you have. Consider your overall priorities and figure out where you need to emphasize more or deemphasize.

You may have to move a few things around to ensure you’re not stretched too thin. For example, how much are you already spending on healthcare per employee? Are you allocating reimbursements or different types of memberships? How much do they cost, and how much more can you add to that?

Having a rough estimate of your budget will guide decisions about the type and number of wellness activities you can offer, whether you can provide incentives and whether you’ll run the program in-house or hire a third-party provider.

Leadership Support

Buy-in from your senior leadership will make or break your wellness program before it gets off the ground. Wellness is not just an HR issue; you also need the support of the finance department and others at the C-level. In short, the wellness program needs massive support from the top down to succeed.

leadership buy in

Two things will possibly happen if there’s no leadership support. First, you won’t get the right investments to start your program. Second, your employees will probably not feel comfortable participating in the program.

On the other hand, having leaders who actively participate in and promote the wellness program can be a major boost to your wellness efforts. For example, a CFO who runs 10k races is more likely to genuinely support a workplace fitness program than one who works around the clock. 

What are the Steps to Create a Corporate Wellness Program?

Creating a successful corporate wellness program involves several steps. Here’s a general outline of the process:

Assess needs and interests

Start by identifying employees’ personal wellness goals. Do they want to lose weight? Reduce their cholesterol levels? Are they dealing with burnout?

This could be done through surveys, interviews, or focus groups. Review their health risk factors, lifestyle habits, and health interests.

Establish goals for your wellness program

What health outcomes do you want to improve? What behaviors are you trying to encourage?

Once you decide that, set clear, time-limited, and measurable goals. For example, you could aim for a 75% participation rate in a fitness challenge. Or to reduce the number of employees who smoke by 30% by the end of the year.

Develop a budget

Determine how much you’re willing and able to spend on the wellness program. Are you looking to refurbish an existing program or start from scratch?

This will help you choose what activities and incentives you can offer.

Design the wellness program

After carefully reviewing your goals, budget, and employees’ interests, it’s time to design. Remember to start off simple to ensure you don’t lose people before you even begin.

Creativity is allowed too! Include unconventional but useful products if your budget allows. Ensure you follow applicable federal and state laws in your jurisdiction. Examples of laws include HIPAA, ADA, and Affordable Care Act.

Implement incentives

Rewards are a great tool to improve the adoption and utilization of your wellness program. Consider throwing in a few to incentivize your team to get involved. Rewards can include discounts on health insurance premiums, gift cards, extra time off, or even simple recognition.

Communicate the details of your wellness program

Develop a communication plan to promote the program to employees and other stakeholders. Clearly state what it does, who it is for, how to participate, and its duration. Kick off the program with an event or series of activities that generate excitement and encourage participation.

 Ensure to provide regular updates and share success stories through emails, newsletters, company meetings, or a dedicated wellness program website.

Evaluate program success

Measure your wellness program’s success after a set period. Have you met your goals? Has employees’ health improved? Are employees participating? Are they finding it beneficial? Use feedback to make adjustments as needed.

What are the Characteristics of Successful Corporate Wellness Programs?

Successful corporate wellness programs often share several key characteristics:

They are human-centered

The costs-first approach doesn’t work in successful corporate wellness programs because employee wellness is not a product to buy or a single policy to implement. Moreover, people are not problems to solve.

Successful wellness programs are holistic, customizable, and tailored to meet all workers’ needs and interests. They consider employee demographics, health risk factors, and lifestyle habits.

They have high employee buy-in and involvement

Not to belabor the point, but again, employees are the key factor in a successful corporate wellness program. Successful leaders think of employees as people with diverse needs, not just titles in the workplace. They take time to understand their daily challenges, successes, and pressing needs.

They are supported by the senior leadership

No matter the size of the company or the scope of the wellness program, leaders play a significant role in the success or failure of a program. When leaders actively participate in and promote the wellness program, it sends a strong message to employees about the company’s commitment to health and wellness. Invariably, successful corporate wellness programs have supportive leaders who model, not just preach, the company’s values.

They are data-driven

Successful corporate wellness programs use quantitative and qualitative data to guide their decisions and evaluate their success. They incorporate mobile health applications and technology to track participation rates, changes in employee health behaviors, or improvements in health outcomes.

They are accessible

Technology lies at the heart of most successful corporate wellness programs. It ensures all employees can participate, regardless of their work schedules, roles, or physical abilities. This often includes activities at different times and locations, providing remote options, and accommodating different fitness levels.

Integration with Company Culture

Lastly, successful wellness programs align with and reinforce the company’s values and culture. They are not seen as separate initiatives but integral parts of the company’s mission and operations.

How Do You Measure the Success of Corporate Wellness Programs?

Measuring the return on investment of a corporate wellness program is not an exact science. Also, the success of a wellness program is not just about numbers. However, there are several indicators of success:

  1. Participation Rates: This is the most straightforward metric. The higher the participation, the more appealing the program. And if the participation grows over time, the better the fit with the company culture. 
  2. Health Outcomes: Successful programs should lead to better health outcomes over time. Data collection through health risk assessments, biometric screenings, or self-reported health status can help track that.
  3. Behavior Changes: Programs should encourage healthier behaviors like increased physical activity, healthier eating, or improved sleep habits. These can be tracked through pulse surveys or activity logs.
  4. Employee Satisfaction: Regular surveys can help assess employee satisfaction with the program. Are they finding it beneficial? Do they have suggestions for improvements? High satisfaction rates are a positive sign.
  5. Absenteeism and Presenteeism: Successful wellness programs can reduce absenteeism (fewer sick days) and presenteeism (increased productivity while at work). Track these metrics to assess the program’s impact on productivity.
  6. Mental Health Metrics: Check improvements in stress levels, burnout rates, or usage of mental health resources provided by the company.

Closing Thoughts

As our business landscape evolves, corporate wellness programs are increasingly becoming more than just a trendy perk or a checkbox for the human resources department. They are a strategic business investment for the savvy employer who knows the value of their employees.

However, reversing unhealthy habits requires more than just good intentions. Consequently, successful corporate workplace programs must be carefully designed to meet your employees’ unique needs and interests. They require the support of leadership, adequate resources, and a commitment to continuous improvement.

With their vast benefits to all stakeholders, corporate wellness programs are not just a nice-to-have – they are a must-have in today’s competitive business environment. And if you genuinely believe your employees are your greatest asset, investing in their well-being is a no-brainer, no matter the size of your company or available resources.

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

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