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How to Create an Employee Wellness Program

Having healthy employees can increase productivity and improve retention rates. Learn the five basic steps to implementing an employee wellness program.
employee wellness programs

Employee wellness programs have evolved beyond an abstract theory concerning employee health to become widely adopted by many businesses across the United States. Today there are many compelling reasons to implement such a program at your business.

Those businesses that have resisted exploring or implementing a wellness program cite these factors as influencing their decision:

  • Cost
  • Insufficient employee interest
  • Absence of support among managers
  • Unverifiable ROI
  • Privacy issues

These are all legitimate concerns, but a closer look at the benefits of employee wellness programs may have you thinking again about their value — particularly with respect to reducing expenses associated with absenteeism and the occurrence of injury and illness among employees.

What is an employee wellness program?

An employee wellness program is an employer-initiated approach to improve employee health and wellness through supporting and encouraging healthy behaviors. Activities may include education, wellness challenges, biometric screenings, and anything else that can help staff make better healthy lifestyle choices. Successful programs can change the overall corporate culture; employees become proactive about improving their health and feeling good. Wellness programs, however, are not health insurance plans. Employee wellness programs often encourage employees to take advantage of preventative measures offered through their health plans, but they are not a replacement for those employee benefits.

The benefits of creating a wellness program

Promoting wellness at work can yield bottom-line benefits that delight both business owners and employees. Healthy, happy employees create a ripple effect of positive gains felt through all aspects of a company's operations.

Here's why you should strongly consider implementing an employee wellness program for your business:

  • They're easy to start. Any healthy lifestyle habit, no matter how small, can be the force multiplier amplifying positive changes with eventual big impacts. Think of the walking challenge that inspires a participant to eat better and become more active, thus lowering their blood pressure and eliminating the need for medication. This means any effort your business makes to support positive behavior changes and wellness at work can have a meaningful impact. Implementing a wellness program starts with small steps. After all, how much cost or effort does it take to:
    • Start a midday walking group?
    • Offer fruit and yogurt instead of muffins and doughnuts during meetings?
    • Eliminate snack food vending machines in the break room?
    • Provide a token of recognition for employees who get biometric screenings?
    • Start a healthy recipe exchange?
    • Begin a tobacco cessation support group?
  • Employee wellness programs can increase productivity. Healthier employees tend to be happier employees, and this generally leads to maintaining a sharper focus on job responsibilities (having more energy and focus, being less distracted by health issues, improved ability to cope with stress, etc.) and stronger motivation to achieve work-related objectives. Healthy employees are more likely to recover quickly in the event of an illness or injury and to be less troubled, in general, by chronic conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking-related health concerns. It's worth noting as well that the physical and mental health of an employee can have a positive effect on coworkers and workplace productivity, not just on that individual person. A company's overall corporate culture can be directly improved and may even lead to innovation.
  • They can prevent absenteeism. The correlation between wellness programs and employee attendance is clear. Employees in poor health generally take more days off and may be less productive than their healthier colleagues. Related to absenteeism is presenteeism. Presenteeism is when a person is at work, but their productivity is compromised due to health-related reasons. Working with a migraine, chronic back pain, or even going to work while sick are all examples, and the latter can potentially reduce the productivity of other employees. Due to a smaller workforce and the impact that the absence of one or two key employees may cause, small and medium-size businesses can suffer from absenteeism and presenteeism more than large corporations. Employees with access to on-the-job wellness offerings — gym, workout stations, a lunchtime walking group, or even space for a video-led exercise class, like yoga or meditation — may be more motivated to show up every day, especially if they can exercise and socialize with coworkers or otherwise engage in healthy office activities. And employers reap financial gains when employees use fewer sick days.
  • They can improve recruitment and retention. You can be sure that many qualified job candidates constantly weigh the pros and cons of employers who offer an established wellness program versus employers without one. In this light, promoting wellness at work is a potentially powerful recruiting tool. Another benefit of employee wellness programs is that they show potential employees that a business cares about them. Many employees can relate to carrying the weight of other workers who either take many sick days or who, even when they are at work, don't put in much effort because of stress or depression.
  • They're popular — and for good reason. Employee wellness program statistics support that these initiatives continue to be embraced by employees and employers. For example, the 2019 Paychex Pulse of HR Survey found that components of wellness programs such as offering wellness wearables and providing meals were among some of the top nontraditional benefits offered. A 2018 SHRM survey also indicated that 34 percent of organizations increased their overall benefits, and of these, 44 percent included wellness benefits.

What should you include?

Wellness is not just the absence of disease. It's a profound and complex combination of numerous, interconnected elements that influence a person's ability to lead a satisfying, productive, and positive life. A balance of healthy habits that touches upon spiritual, intellectual, emotional, physical, financial, social, professional, and even environmental health is important.

Because employees spend so much of their time at work and pursuing their professional aspirations, employers are uniquely positioned to help them translate the idea of wellness at work into meaningful action. Employee wellness program ideas are only limited by your imagination. Some initiatives are straightforward and common, while others can be more traditional.

Your initiatives should focus on your employees' needs, interests, and concerns. Here are some employee wellness ideas to get you started.

Employee wellness benefits for improved physical health

  • Preventative health screenings (blood pressure, cholesterol, BMI)
  • Self-help health education materials
  • On-site yoga
  • Free gym membership
  • On-site massages
  • Online health and exercise tracking
  • Ergonomic desk equipment
  • Subsidized healthy lunches

Employee wellness benefits for improved mental health

  • An unlimited vacation policy
  • A required percentage of meetings held outdoors/outside of the office
  • Accommodation of spiritual/faith practices
  • Seminars about mental health and stress reduction
  • An employee financial wellness program
  • Smoking cessation guidance
  • Other addiction treatment services

Employee wellness benefits for community engagement

  • Sports leagues
  • On-site group activities
  • Paid time off for community service/volunteering

5 steps to creating an employee wellness program

1. Understand the group's underlying issues.

Before launching an initiative, assess the overall state of your employees' health and find out what's really causing any declining health and wellness or prevention of improvement. Above all, make sure to engage your employees (including those working remotely) and ask them for their insights. You're looking for overall trends and preferences, not digging up individual health records. Make sure you abide by legal and ethical constraints. It's important to note that laws, including but not limited to, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) can limit an employer’s ability to gather and use information about their workforce's health conditions (or those of their family members).

2. Devise a wellness plan. 

Now it's time to create solutions to the identified health issues. There are numerous options for classes, materials, and/or incentives to help kickstart your wellness plan. Maybe start with a challenge (walking, drinking water, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, keeping a gratitude journal, eating fruits and vegetables, etc.) between employees or departments, and offer small incentives such as workout towels, small gift cards to a healthful retailer, or reusable water bottles.

3. Raise awareness. 

Ultimately, employee engagement is the only way a wellness program will be successful. Keep in mind that some workers may not be aware of how a certain behavior like too much sitting, eating nutrient-poor foods, not getting outside, etc. is negatively affecting their health. Find statistics or other easy-to-read, encouraging resources to share with employees. These can be shared on table topper cards in the break room, on bulletin board posters, in emails or newsletters, and communicated at staff meetings. Such messages can serve as the precursor to launching a wellness program and can be continued to bolster ongoing participation and awareness.

4. Create accessible employee resources. 

Employees may have good intentions to improve their health, but they might not be inspired to act on those intentions unless they have access to the tools they need to do so. For instance, if you want to encourage more physical activity throughout the day, provide the resources and encouragement to achieve that. Bicycle commuters will appreciate a shower to clean up before work, and complimentary timers to remind staff to move periodically throughout the day, encouragement to use the stairs, and space to do some stretching for a quick five-minute workout will help motivate staff to change behaviors.

5. Lead by example.

Excitement and engagement about wellness needs to be authentic and thorough. Attitude is everything. Managers must exhibit, recognize, and reward healthy behavior. Additionally, if you have staff members who lead a healthy lifestyle or are actively trying to get healthier, ask whether they would be willing to serve as "wellness champions," assist distributing information, and become a go-to resource to their colleagues. This champion, in turn, can share employee wellness ideas and feedback from staff members.

With so much to gain, consider the benefits of starting an employee wellness program. Your employees will likely thank you for being an employer that cares about their health, wealth, and happiness.

Deciding which employee benefits to offer? We can help.

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This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.

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