5 Traits of an Effective Employee Wellness Program

Wellness is like electricity: You only notice it when it’s missing. When you’re not well, your productivity and mood dim to a shadow of their usual selves.

Across a team, that difference can be night and day. Employers who offer and measure the impact of their wellness programs report a 66 percent increase in productivity and a 67 percent boost to employee satisfaction, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. Add it all up, and employee benefit programs return about $6 for every $1 invested in them.

Of course, not all wellness programs are created equal. Half-hearted initiatives that merely tell team members to drink more water or recommend annual doctor visits aren’t likely to do much good.

Be a Well Workplace

So what does an effective employee wellness program look like? At a minimum, it should include these five things:

1. Wholesome snacks at arm’s reach

If the term “snack” sounds like a once-in-a-while treat, get a taste of this: The majority of Americans’ eating occasions are now snacking, and nine in ten Americans snack multiple times per day.

NatureBox Executive Chairman John Occhipinti saw first hand how snacking habits can impact productivity. He recently told Forbes, “When I was in college I gained 25 pounds from stress eating, feasting on processed and fatty foods. When I started working in high-stress entrepreneurial environments that pattern started repeating. I realized that things needed to change, and healthier snacking made all the difference for me. Conscious eating changed my health and my life, and I certainly wouldn’t have made it as an entrepreneur without this change.”

Although you can’t control the snacks your team eats off the clock, you can give them healthy options at work. Athletic brand PUMA, for example, offers an unlimited office snacks to employees through NatureBox, which keeps its members stocked with nutritious foods that fit their dietary needs. “There’s a great selection of granolas, dried fruits, pretzels, nuts, and healthy crackers and cookies so we never get bored,” Victoria Nilan, PUMA’s office operations coordinator, explained to ReadWrite. “Our goal is to provide a healthy snack that you can grab quickly on your way to a meeting, when you don’t have time to go out into the busy city to get something.”

2. Free screenings and assessments

Nearly two-thirds of large firms now offer free health risk assessments to their employees, according to Kaiser Family Foundation, and more than half of them provide biometric screenings. Why? Because without knowing workers’ health risks, neither party can put together a tailored wellness program.

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, explains that health risk assessments are often the starting point for everything from on-site yoga sessions to diabetic-friendly snacks. He also points out they’re used to negotiate discounted rates for services, such as gym memberships, that surveyed employees express interest in.

3. Mental health resources

Even in the context of out-of-control healthcare spending, employees’ mental health expenses are rising twice as quickly as all other medical costs, CNBC reports. On average, workers with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder or substance abuse make six times more emergency room visits as their peers. Those suffering from depression submit $14,967 in claims each year, compared to $5,929 for the general population.

The right way to build mental help into your wellness program? Don’t try to play doctor; instead, connect workers in need with qualified professionals. Show compassion by providing time off work for those who require treatment, and keep concerns confidential to avoid stigmatizing the program.

“There has to be cultures of health and cultures of compassion that allow people to be innovative and creative within climates of psychological safety,” Nancy Spangler, founder and CEO of consulting firm Spangler Associates, told CNBC in the story above. “That’s where well-being occurs.”

4. Designs for healthy habits

In our Netflix-and-chill culture, workplace wellness can seem like an uphill battle. Fortunately, the mere presence of healthy alternatives is often enough to get team members to embrace them.

The best way to promote bicycling, for example, is simply to install more bike racks. Even increasing the distance people have to walk to reach an escalator — by designating a different “main door” or rearranging office furniture, perhaps — can increase the chance of someone taking the stairs by 95 percent.

One of the easiest health-oriented office hardware improvements? Standing desks. “People start to see them, and they want them,” Steven Yates, office manager at energy efficiency software company Opower remarked to the Washington Post. Although the trends originated on Opower’s engineering team, two-thirds of its employees now use adjustable-height desks. In fact, Yates has decided that all new desk purchases will be adjustable, given how many requests for them he’s received.

5. Incentives for regular exercise

In November of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doubled its guidelines to 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise. The change comes on the heels of another CDC study that found just 23 percent of Americans got enough exercise under the old guidelines.

“The new guidelines demonstrate that, based on the best science, everyone can dramatically improve their health just by moving — anytime, anywhere, and by any means that gets you active,” Brett Giroir, Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for health, wrote in a press release. “That’s why we need to come together as a nation to get Americans moving.”

So what can you do to get employees to exercise? For one, reimburse them for their gym memberships, which Health Contributions found leads workers to exercise three times as often as they otherwise would. Second, promote group exercise, such as pre-work dance classes or afternoon running clubs. Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes has even come out in favor of paying employees to exercise.

While it would be nice to improve your team’s health at the flip of a switch, that’s not how wellness works. Wellness isn’t an endpoint; it’s an ongoing, multi-faceted effort. In the context of work, wellness requires you and your workers to commit to a healthy diet, regular exercise, an active workspace, and mental and emotional wellbeing.

Those might not sound like “lightbulb” insights, and they’re not; they’re the table stakes for a healthy workforce and, by extension, a healthy company.

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