Skip to main content

Employee wellness programs are a central component of your benefits package when trying to attract talent, but does that translate into employees actually using them? 

Data suggests the answer is no. A study from RAND revealed that on average, only 20-40% of employees with access to employee wellness programs actually take advantage of what they offer. So how do we change this? 

In this article, we’re going to provide you with advice from experts and professionals in the field who have faced these challenges and had to fix their wellness programs.

We’ll also take a look at the role of employee wellness technology and what you need to do to keep these programs relevant in the long run.

What Is An Employee Wellness Program?

An employee wellness program is a company-organized initiative aimed at improving the health and well-being of its employees through programs that focus on mental, physical and emotional health. 

Traditionally, this has meant some type of yoga class would be offered, some with farm animals, some online. It might even mean access to meditation resources or some materials about nutrition.

What it hasn’t meant, unfortunately, is people leaders sitting with employees to find out what wellness benefits would actually mean something to them.

What Is Wrong With Your Wellness Program?

Ask seemingly any benefits specialist what goes wrong with Employee Wellness Programs and you’re going to get a similar starting point. 

One Size Fits All

“A lot of companies introduce wellness programs and associated technologies with the best intentions but they often miss the mark on aligning these initiatives with the actual needs and preferences of their employees,” says Cody Rounds, clinical psychologist and Federal Advocacy Coordinator for the American Psychological Association. “A common misstep is the lack of personalized approaches. Wellness is not one-size-fits-all, and programs that fail to recognize the individualized nature of health and wellness are likely to see lower engagement.”

The one size fits all approach is problematic whether it’s applied to your wellness program as a whole or the software you’re using to implement it. 

As wellness platforms compete with one another for depth and breadth of what they can offer, their solutions can sometimes become less specific and therefore, less effective. 

“The market for B2B wellness offerings has become increasingly saturated, with many solutions mimicking each other to stay competitive,” Sonia Ponzo, CEO of digital health startup Outset Wellness said. “This has led to a homogenization of offerings where differentiation is minimal, and uniqueness in service is scarce. When wellness programs try to be all-encompassing, they often spread themselves too thin, failing to effectively address specific needs or create meaningful impact.”

Get weekly insights and how-tos on leadership and HR’s biggest and most pressing topics—right to your inbox.

Get weekly insights and how-tos on leadership and HR’s biggest and most pressing topics—right to your inbox.

You Didn’t Ask

Another common mistake is viewing wellness programs as some sort of box to tick. This often leads to searching for the easiest or cheapest solution or developing one based on assumptions about wellness trends rather than employee surveys.

Gathering regular feedback from employee surveys or focus groups is crucial to understanding their specific needs and preferences. The program itself should be holistic, encompassing physical, mental, social, and financial well-being.

One of the most common mistakes is an over emphasis on physical well-being, something that can be avoided by simply asking employees what they’d value.

Poor Communication

Given the lack of thought and intentionality put into a lot of these programs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that poorly communicating the details of a wellness program has a severe impact on participation rates. 

That isn’t just communications in the form of a company email. What we’re referring to here is how the understanding of the wellness program permeates throughout the organization, starting with leaders and working its way through your communication platforms.

When done poorly, employees are left with little understanding about the intent of the program, where to access it, why they should engage with it and how they’ll benefit from it. 

A Lack of Trust

Stigmas around mental and emotional health have become less severe in recent years, but that doesn’t mean that they’re gone.

For some employees, to engage with an employer who is collecting data around program usage and employee engagement with wellness programs requires a high level of trust.

This is one area where getting employees to share their success stories with the program will help. But ultimately, it comes down to a question of culture and how well does your organization do with helping employees feel psychologically safe and accepted?

How To Fix Your Employee Wellness Program

At this point, you may have found yourself falling into one of these categories and are asking yourself, how do we fix it? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with some advice from a variety of experts. 

Step 1: Cultivate a Supportive Culture

Creating a culture that genuinely values employee wellness begins with executive buy-in. 

Leadership at all levels will need to communicate a message that employee health is a company priority, not just a box to check. 

Like any cultural shift, this requires a level of commitment that people can see and feel. This starts with ensuring you have invested in wellness programs that go beyond standard offerings to include mental health support, collaboration on wellness action plans, and ergonomic workplaces.

The question that has to be asked and answered by every leader from the CEO down to the line managers is this: “Is wellness an integral part of our organizational DNA?”

Step 2: Build Your Feedback Loops

Getting feedback on a regular basis is crucial in tailoring wellness programs to meet the needs of the workforce. The use of surveys, suggestion boxes, and regular wellness meetings can help gather actionable insights. 

Technology plays a role here as well, providing platforms for employees to voice their wellness preferences and do it anonymously, if desired. This data can then be analyzed to adjust programs in real time, ensuring they remain relevant and engaging.

To build a wellness program that works, you need to get under the skin of your business, according to culture consultant Max Barnard. Leaders need to understand specifics of what employees would use and what time they need in order to be able to do it. 

Asking "why don't you use our wellness program" isn’t going to help you dig down to the specific issues your employees face and why your wellbeing initiative isn't working.

Barnard recommends a campaign dedicated to wellbeing data gathering, coupled with communications from the top that this is important will help you be more effective.

“Focus on asking for information about how leaders can help, where there are blocks and 'dream wellbeing' - if they could have anything, what would they have,” says Barnard. “If you really care about your employees wellbeing, you need to find something they really want. Not just some old videos about yoga or how to make your own hummus.”

Step 3: Technology Integration

While technology is by no means an end all be all solution, it is instrumental in scaling and personalizing wellness initiatives. 

Advanced analytics help identify patterns and trends in employee engagement and health outcomes, guiding more informed decisions about program offerings.

Mobile apps deliver personalized wellness tips and track progress, making wellness an everyday habit rather than an occasional check-in.

“Technology has the potential to significantly enhance wellness programs by providing data-driven insights into employee habits and preferences,” Rounds said. “However, it must be integrated thoughtfully, with a clear understanding of its role as a facilitator rather than a solution.”

Step 4: Leadership Training and Development

To ensure the effectiveness of wellness programs, leadership training is essential. At the end of the day, if you want leaders and managers to promote wellness practices and initiatives, you’ll need to equip them with skills to embody those things. 

Training programs should focus on teaching leaders how to create inclusive environments that respect individual wellness journeys and how to motivate teams by setting examples in their own behavior.

“It's not about getting communications to the masses,” says Barnard. “It's not about wellbeing campaigns either. It's about getting those with influence to understand what is on offer and who should be using it. Boardrooms should be hearing about wellbeing offers, not just posters on the back of toilet doors.”

Step 5: Top-down Wellness Advocacy

When leaders actively participate in and advocate for wellness challenges, it sets a powerful example for the rest of the organization. This trickle-down effect helps to normalize participation and diminish any stigma around prioritizing personal health.

Leaders should be visible in their engagement with wellness activities and open in discussing their own wellness journeys, encouraging a more open and supportive workplace culture.

“I've spoken to a lot of leaders about this and the response is usually the same,” says Barnard. “Either they don’t know about the wellness program enough to speak to it, they don’t believe the offer is very good or they don’t feel comfortable talking to their team about it. If you want to see a spike in usage, get the Exec team to engage with the employee wellness program and make sure they are talking about their experiences publicly.”

Barnard notes a key benefit to getting leaders to use the wellness program is it provides a test case and if the product is not really all that great, you will hear from people you trust to have an eye for quality that it's time to put it in the bin.  

Step 6: Program Reviews and Adaptations

Finally, companies must commit to regularly reviewing and adapting their wellness programs. 

What works in wellness shifts regularly as workforce dynamics evolve. Regular assessments, coupled with adjustments, ensure that wellness programs grow and evolve in alignment with employee needs and organizational goals.

To do this, a good place to start is making sure your wellness program is built into the entire gamut of employee interactions. This includes: 

“Any moment that matters during the employee lifecycle should be used to talk about wellness and how the program is serving employees,” says Barnard. “It’s not enough to slap it on the bottom of a poster during Mental Health Awareness Month, there needs to be consistent communication baked into your business structure. People managers should be able to speak about well-being and there should be training to help them do that. Because without them, you have an HR initiative doomed to fail.”

Tools

There are a great number of employee wellness platforms out there that collect data and help you create a program that better serves your employees. Sifting through them and making the best choice for your organization, on the other hand, can be quite a chore. 

We’re here to help. We’ve reviewed a ton of this software and have chosen our picks for the best of the bunch.

5 Top Employee Wellness Platforms

Here's my pick of the 5 best software from the 5 tools reviewed.

As we mentioned previously, you’re going to want to engage your employees around what wellness areas they would derive the most value from. To do this, you’ll need to survey them and there are a great many tools to help you with this as well. 

Check out our our pick of the 20 Best Employee Survey Tools for Staff Feedback in 2024 list.

And if you still need some inspiration or guidance, a good place to look for it might just be an employee wellness conference.

Join The Conversation

Want to hear what other leaders in HR and people management are doing to improve their wellness offerings? Join the People Managing People community! By becoming a member, you’ll meet other leaders facing the same challenges as you and join conversations where leaders are focused on solving problems through collaboration. 

David Rice
By David Rice

David Rice is a long time journalist and editor who specializes in covering human resources and leadership topics. His career has seen him focus on a variety of industries for both print and digital publications in the United States and UK.