What makes a workplace wellness program successful?
A study published by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) sheds light on the topic.
According to the February 2016 study, two primary keys to employer-sponsored wellness program success are 1) building an organizational culture of health and 2) utilizing strategic communications.
Many employers turn to wellness programs to realize bottom-line benefits, such as lower healthcare costs and higher productivity, as well as the improved morale that comes with a healthier workforce.
But not all wellness programs are created equal. In fact, research has shown that many employer-sponsored programs fail to achieve their intended results.
In the ACOEM study, a group of researchers analyzed nine companies whose wellness programs showed “demonstrable results,” and held roundtable discussions with a variety of experts in the field.
The result: Practical examples that can help other organizations foster cultures of health.
How to build a ‘culture of health’
The study defines a workplace with a culture of health as one that “places value on and is conducive to employee health and well-being.”
“Employers with successful wellness programs have learned that isolated ‘perks’ or programs such as an on-site fitness center or menu labeling, will not have much impact unless they are part of an overall culture that permeates all aspects of company life,” the study says.
Leaders, managers and employees all have roles to play to truly integrate wellness into the fabric of an organization.
- Leaders must practice healthy behaviors, implement healthy policies and practices, create a healthy work environment and provide enough resources to sustain wellness programs, the study says. For example, at one large company the researchers studied, the CEO was public about his own weight loss goals.
- Managers must encourage employees to incorporate healthy activities into their workdays. “In a culture of health, managers offer work flexibility, decision latitude, reasonable goals, social support and consistent messaging on the value of health and well-being,” the study says.
- Employees must help to shape and build the wellness program so that it meets their needs. “Involving workers in day-to-day decisions is critical to establishing buy-in for programs and building trust,” the study says. This could include focus groups, program evaluations or simply having an environment where employees feel free to share their suggestions with leaders. “At many of the organizations we visited, employees reported being very engaged in the program and ‘owners’ of the program because initiatives were continually evolving based on their feedback,” the study says.
Embedding wellness as a “way of life”
Employees can be influential in encouraging their coworkers to improve their health.
At one organization researchers visited, employees joined teams and competed to see which team could get the most people to exercise consistently. As a result, more than 90 percent of employees there exercise at least twice a week for 20 minutes.
Just as coworker support is important to improving health, so is the support of spouses and other family members, researchers found.
They cited a Health Enhancement Research Organization study which found that employers who allow spouses to participate in their wellness programs saw double the participation rate of those that didn’t.
“Employers who allow spouses to participate in their wellness programs saw double the participation rate of those that didn’t.”
Ultimately, wellness must be seen not just as a program, or even package of programs, but as a part of how the organization operates, the study says.
“It is about creating a ‘way of life’ in the workplace that integrates a total health model into every aspect of the business practice — from being embedded in the corporate mission down to the policies and everyday work activities that are supportive of career, emotional, financial, physical and social well-being,” the study says.
Creating a work environment that physically supports health
These key questions can help you determine whether you offer a work environment that physically supports employee health.
One organization that the researchers visited, USAA, weaves healthy options into the workday. They provide an onsite gym that’s open 24 hours per day (they even provide workout clothes) as well as small areas with fitness equipment near offices so employees can get in some quick exercise during the workday. Cafes and vending machines are designed to steer employees to healthier food options through, “competitive pricing, appealing presentation and display of nutritional information in creative ways,” the study says.
More than 20,000 employees work on USAA’s campus, but much smaller organizations have also been successful in creating healthy work environments.
For example, researchers visited Next Jump, a company of 200 employees, which started by holding fitness classes in a company conference room after hours and later built an on-site fitness center. Management there stocks the refrigerator with free healthy snacks like yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, fruits, vegetables and hummus, the study says, and candy jars have been replaced with fresh fruit and nuts.
Using strategic communications to improve employee health
Researchers called strategic communications “one of the most critical building blocks” for a successful program — it helps employees understand how the program works, how they can get involved and what they’ll get out of participating.
“Organizations with frequent and strong communication campaigns were able to spend $80 per person less on financial incentives and still get high wellness program participation.”
One study researchers cited showed that organizations with frequent and strong communication campaigns were able to spend $80 per person less on financial incentives and still get high wellness program participation.
Successful campaigns are built to achieve well-defined objectives, the study says, and they serve to:
- Increase awareness/educate
- Motivate employees to make healthy choices
- Market the health promotion resources available
- Build trust
Some examples of strategic communications used effectively are sharing success stories of individual or groups of employees who achieve health-related goals and transparently communicating with employees about why the organization promotes health.
5 tips for an effective communication strategy
- Avoid targeting a specific health ideal, like achieving a body mass index of 25 or less, or taking 10,000 steps per day. Instead, encourage employees to set and achieve progressive goals that are attainable for them.
- Use a variety of messaging channels: email, newsletters, posters, direct mail, intranet and social media. And don’t forget word-of-mouth communication (especially from peers and leaders they know personally)!
- Communicate frequently to increase awareness and ongoing participation, but if the communication becomes overwhelming or stale, it will be ignored. That’s why message content must be varied.
- Try to deliver messages at key decision points, such as nutrition-related messages at the point of purchase or general marketing about the programs offered during new-employee orientation.
- Ensure the communication goes both ways. Ask employees for feedback and input to learn about their knowledge, beliefs, needs and interests. This helps to continuously refine the program.
Wellness practices that have worked for SFM
Like many organizations, SFM works continuously to encourage employee health and wellness.
With just over 250 employees, SFM may not be large enough to have its own cafeteria or gym, but the organization still finds plenty of ways to promote health. These practices could work at companies of any size.
Ideas for wellness program activities:
- Establish an employee wellness committee that steers and promotes the company’s wellness efforts. Committee members are volunteers who write blog posts about health and wellness issues on the company’s intranet and plan activities and challenges throughout the year.
- Provide nutritious snacks for all employees. At SFM, “Healthy Foods on the First” are delivered the first Wednesday of every month.
- Subsidize the cost of gym memberships.
- Subsidize the cost of weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig.
- Encourage employees to take breaks to ‘Get Up and Move’ throughout the workday. It’s common to see employees take 10-minute walking breaks in the building hallways.
- Hold a sleep challenge where employees tracked their sleep for four weeks for the chance to win a prize. The goal was to identify possible areas of improvement.
- Hold a ping pong or bean bag tournament to encourage more employees to get up from their desks and get some exercise.
The benefits of an effective wellness program are many.
From a workers’ compensation perspective, obesity can cause and exacerbate work injuries, leading to higher future premiums, and healthcare costs are similarly affected by employee wellness. Healthier workers are more productive and absent less. That might be why the stock prices of companies with healthier employees tend to outperform their peers. And of course, it can do wonders for morale when employees know that you care about them and their health.
Employer-sponsored wellness programs continue to evolve. A mindset of continuous improvement, deepening organizational integration and open communication will help your organization’s wellness program thrive.