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Designing an Employee Health & Wellness Program: 8 Steps and Ideas

Designing an effective employee health and wellness program is key to improving productivity and morale in the workplace. Here are some new ways of thinking to get you started.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Mar 15, 2023

I’ve often joked (with colleagues, Troop members, and on this very site) that HR is one of the buzz-wordiest industries, but the truth is the health and wellness space might have our people profession beat. Superfood. Holistic. Self-care. These terms and others pop up basically everywhere, and while the overuse of these words doesn’t diminish their overall importance –– self-care, superfoods, and holistic approaches to wellness can be very good things –– it’s the failure to do more than talk about these things that can be harmful. 

Combine these two buzzword-rich industries, and you have corporate “wellness initiatives” that exist as a means of bragging rather than actually promoting employee health. Considering our people are our greatest asset, we must do more than talk about taking care of them: making carefully designed employee health and wellness programs positively essential. But before we launch into designing these programs, I feel it’s important to assign a true meaning to wellness.

Let’s go beyond the buzzword, shall we? 

What is Employee Wellness?

While the type of wellness found in literature for a gym or boutique fitness studio might be centered solely on the physical, an hour-long gym session also occupies just a fraction of your day. Work, on the other hand, consumes one-third of our lives, or far more if we take it home with us as so many do. 

Employee wellness considers the physical, mental, emotional, and financial health of a workforce and the ways in which these facets of health impact the overall health of the organization. Healthy, happy, balanced employees tend to be more productive, but bottom line aside: It’s our obligation as leaders to look out for those who devote so much of their time to our shared goal, necessitating an employee health and wellness program. 

Why is Employee Wellness a Priority? 

Productivity is always important –– as is looking out for your people –– but there are several other key reasons why employee health and wellness is (and should be) a priority, particularly in today’s workplace. Amidst widespread economic uncertainty, environmental stresses are all around, and inflation has even six-figure earners feeling like they’re living paycheck to paycheck

As leaders, these factors are largely out of our control. But by prioritizing employee wellness we can make sure your people know they’re supported during this difficult time and the next. This will, in turn, help reduce the risk of employee turnover while simultaneously creating a more resilient workforce.

Benefits of Employee Wellness Programs

I’ve discussed some of the perks of employee wellness, but there are several other direct benefits of implementing an employee health and wellness program. 

Increased Employee Engagement

When we’re bogged down by life’s many stressors, we feel like we have little control –– even over things for which we’re experts in our field. But when we have a means of mitigating that stress, of breathing through it, remaining mindful, and staying present, we feel a sense of autonomy and a greater enthusiasm for our work. It’s in this way that an employee wellness program can be of use. Equipping your people with a means of dealing with stress can improve overall engagement while instilling a sense of agency in your entire workforce. 

Reduced Employee Turnover Rate

I mentioned “workforce resilience” a couple of times, but what does that actually mean? To keep from turning it into another dreaded buzzword, I’ll offer my own definition: The ability of our people to weather the ebbs and flows of work, and their confidence in navigating challenging circumstances. When employee health and wellness is at the forefront, resilience is improved –– meaning employees are less likely to jump ship during tough times, reducing employee turnover and creating a more unified culture. 

Improved Company Culture

Speaking of a more unified company culture, a strong employee health and wellness program can do wonders for creating a culture in which all people are valued and cared for and morale is high. Part of an employee health and wellness program is establishing boundaries, and creating  work-life balance. In a company culture where there are clear lines between work and life, employees can strive toward excellence when they’re on the clock and discover more to life when they’re not. 

“Employees want a culture that is supported by leaders that exemplify wellbeing themselves. It is only in this authentic demonstration of wellbeing by leadership, that cultures of wellbeing can exist and thrive.” 
~ Megan K. Dittman, Co-Founder + Wellbeing Curator, Front Goose 

New Levels of Employee Productivity

Lastly, as I touched on earlier, equipping your people with means of handling stress and navigating through supposed roadblocks can do wonders for overall productivity. Depression, anxiety, and addiction are all linked to dramatic losses in productivity. By supporting your team through these struggles and arming them with ways around them, you can eliminate productivity inhibitors and empower your people to be well.

How to Design an Employee Health & Wellness Program

Now that we know the reasons why an employee health and wellness program is so crucial, let’s explore some steps HR leaders can take to design one. 

Survey Employees

In order to meet your team’s health and wellness needs, you need to first understand them –– and one of the simplest ways to do this is to ask. An employee health and wellness survey can help paint a clear picture of what your team needs, be it emotional and mental health support for mitigating stress and anxiety, an assist to kick a smoking habit, or help navigating challenging professional relationships. 

Identify Program Champions

After gaining insight into what your team needs in an employee health and wellness program, you’ll need to see who among your organization can help spearhead this effort. The more stakeholders you can involve, the better your executive vision can be implemented and the more effective your program will be.  

Assemble an Employee Wellness Committee 

It’s crucial that your employee health and wellness program continues to benefit your entire organization, meaning DE&I should be at the center of this initiative. With this in mind, assign an employee wellness committee to the task of upholding DE&I and ensuring all parties and needs are represented. 

Define Program Goals with Metrics

As your plan rolls out and its effectiveness is assessed, you’ll need concrete indicators of its success or shortcomings –– and it’s crucial that you identify these indicators (and use them to establish goals) prior to implementing your employee health and wellness plan. Broad indicators, like social, financial, and professional wellbeing can be valuable, but drilling into employee metrics will do more to communicate your program’s effectiveness. Personnel data like overtime hours worked, unexpected time off, and direct feedback can all help measure your overall success.  

“Traditionally, when we approach program evaluation and look to define program goals, we tend to do so through the lens of ROI, such as reduced healthcare costs and insurance claims. Yet, this narrow-focused approach of evaluating programs based on dollars and cents fails to capture other major variables addressed through employee wellness programs that contribute heavily to a company's performance, culture, and bottom line. In addition to measuring ROI, approach program evaluation with a focus on VOI, or Value on Investment. Defining program success in this holistic way considers more of what makes your business successful, such as employee engagement, performance, morale, reduced absenteeism, increased retention, and reduced health risk. Positive change can even trickle into innovation, and customer satisfaction and loyalty.”
-Cristina Guerra, Corporate Wellness Specialist, MBL Benefits Consulting

Identify the Appropriate Wellness Resources

From yoga and meditation instructors, to corporate mental health counselors, to performance coaches, there is virtually no limit to the employee health and wellness resources available to your organization. Therefore, the challenge lies not in your ability to find these resources, but in determining which resources are the best for your people. As part of your earlier employee health and wellness survey, be sure that you identify the types of resources most needed by your team. 

Increase Benefit Awareness

As you likely already know, resources like employee health and wellness programs are a sort of use-it-or-lose-it affair. Achieving organizational buy-in can be a borderline-Herculean feat for some, and lack of use can cause these resources to atrophy or evaporate altogether. Therefore, HR leaders and their appointed committee should be sure that benefit awareness is a priority, and that teams know that help is there when they need it –– and exactly how to access it. 

Christina Guerra from MBL Benefits Consulting recommends the following to her people leader clients: 

1) brand your wellness program with its own special program name and logo that signifies the program is embedded in company culture and here to stay

2) recruit wellness champions willing to spearhead awareness efforts or share their experience with your programs; tap into existing ERGs

3) communicate your wellness program offerings not only at open enrollment, but multiple times throughout the year and through multiple internal channels, like email, intranet, social media, push notifications and if you use a platform like Slack, a channel dedicated specifically to the wellness program

4) host live launches (webinar or in person) to create buzz, allow for questions and to provide use cases. Part of selling a program to employees is being able to make them understand what’s in it for them, so communicate why employees need it, as some may have no idea why they should want to use a certain benefit or engage with a program.

Create Wellness Challenges

While some teams are quick to leverage these resources, it may take some work to get others engaged. Enter: wellness challenges. These challenges, focused on adopting healthy habits and shaking the cobwebs loose, also help foster some friendly competition –– and can be great for your program’s overall visibility. No matter which approach you take, be it The Office-style office olympics or a bike-to-work week, when it comes to wellness challenges, the key is to keep it fun.   

“No People Leader who has spent company time, energy and money exploring and implementing wellness programs wants to hear employees say, ‘I had no idea we had that benefit/program’, or, ‘I wish I knew about that when I needed it’ or,  ‘awesome, when did we start doing that?’ and yet, it absolutely does happen. That’s why having a plan in place to drive program awareness consistently and strategically is so important”.
-Cristina Guerra, Corporate Wellness Specialist, MBL Benefits Consulting

Request Regular Feedback (and Iterate)

Lastly, any employee health and wellness program should be living. It should grow, change, and evolve with your team, constantly addressing the needs of your people as best as it can. Feedback surrounding your health and wellness program should be free-flowing, as your people are instrumental in making this program the best it can be, and subsequent program iterations should be built around this feedback.  

Types of Employee Wellness Initiatives

Employee health and wellness programs should be comprehensive –– encompassing physical, mental, emotional, and financial health. Here are just a few ways HR leaders can emphasize each. 

Employee Physical Health

Promoting physical health can be a logical starting point for many leaders, and employee physical wellness programs trace their roots back to the 1970s with Johnson & Johnson’s “Live for Life” program. Through classes, office-wide wellness initiatives, and exercise stipends, HR leaders can help promote the physical health of their teams while seizing the accompanying benefits.  

Employee Mental Health 

Though the mental health of employees has recently begun to receive the attention it deserves, corporate mental wellness efforts are a relatively new advent. Emphasis placed on work-life balance has helped support and improve the mental health of employees, and some organizations have begun offering counseling services, mindfulness and meditation courses, and meeting-free days as a means of promoting overall mental wellness. 

Employee Emotional Health

Mental health and emotional health may seem like they’re one in the same, but there are key differences between the two –– and several ways HR leaders can specifically focus on employee emotional health. Emotional health pertains to our ability to process emotions and manage relationships (be they personal or professional) and can be nurtured by a company culture which places transparency and openness at the forefront. 

“Covering both mental and emotional health is powerful. You're providing employees with tools that will allow them to feel and perform better at work. They'll also be able to contribute to creating a positive work culture, easing the burden on the organization. There's a ripple effect from the individual to the whole of the organization.” 
~Belma McCaffrey, CEO & Founder, Work Bigger 

Employee Financial Health

Considering the ongoing financial stresses many of us face and the uncertainty of today’s (and tomorrow’s) market, financial health is more important than ever. By incorporating financial wellness into your employee health and wellness program, be it in the form of ongoing education or open conversations around financial goals, HR leaders can help alleviate money-related stress in their people. 

Employee Wellness Program Ideas

As more businesses implement employee health and wellness programs, we have more moves to make our own. Here’s how some of the biggest brands and businesses demonstrate and renew their commitments to wellness. 

  1. Netflix: The streaming giant recognizes that time is our greatest asset, which is why Netflix offers staff unlimited time off and up to a year of paid parental leave. 
  2. Tinder: From weekly workouts to curated content, Tinder’s employee health and wellness program is focused on getting teams active and educating them on making sound decisions for mental, physical, and financial health. 
  3. Nike: It would be surprising to find out that the biggest name in sportswear didn’t have a health and wellness program –– and Nike’s is in the form of their all-access employee wellness and recreation center. 
  4. Expedia: Remote HR leaders: take note. For their UK teams, Expedia offers employees a wellness stipend to be spent on fitness classes, home gym equipment, or anything else in the realm of health and wellness. 
  5. Airbnb: One of the most expansive employee health and wellness programs I’ve seen in recent memory, Airbnb wellness initiatives span from meeting-free days and work-how-you-want spaces to extended yearly breaks.  
  6. Fitbit: Fitbit leverages their own fitness trackers to keep employees active while offering in-person teams kitchens stocked with clean eats. 
  7. Hotjar: In an effort to create better work-life balance by fully embracing remote work, analytics tool Hotjar introduced technology stipends –– as much as €4000 for UK teams
  8. Zappos: I mentioned the importance of an employee health and wellness program which addresses the needs of employees, and Zappos’ teams needed a nap room. So they got one!  

Exchange Best Practices for Employee Health and Wellness Strategies with Other HR Leaders 

While every team is different, one of your greatest assets for developing an employee health and wellness program is understanding the successes (and shortcomings) of your colleagues. To benefit from the experiences of other HR leaders and share some insights of your own, become a Troop member today

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