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A large number of studies show that employee wellness programs play a role in driving employee engagement, morale and retention while reducing absenteeism, health problems and mental health challenges. 

In this guide, we’ll break down what employee wellness programs are, the types you can look to create and even look at the potential costs and benefits of these programs. 

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. 

These programs typically focus on multiple aspects of wellness, including physical, mental, and emotional health.

They may offer activities and resources like fitness classes, mental health counseling, nutritional advice, and preventive health screenings, all designed to boost employee productivity, engagement, and overall job satisfaction while reducing healthcare costs and absenteeism.

They are also key factor in increasing the utilization of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Benefits Of Employee Wellness Programs

Wellness in the workplace touches all aspects of an employee’s life and accounts for a holistic approach to health and business outcomes.

For example, an employee struggling with stress may find it difficult to focus, potentially leading to decreased productivity and job dissatisfaction. 

Conversely, a well-supported employee typically exhibits higher engagement and efficiency. 

From a recruiting perspective, your wellness offerings can make a huge difference in driving candidate interest as well as retention and employee’s acting as ambassadors for the company. Some interesting statistics to note: 

  • 71% of employees consider wellness offerings when choosing an employer. (Gitnux)
  • 56% of employees participating in wellness programs took fewer sick days. (Zippia)
  • Employees who feel cared for are 3.7x more likely to recommend working for the company. (LinkedIn Talent Solutions)

However, these benefits are only achieved to their fullest extent through regular participation in the program by employees. That, in many cases, comes down to the organization consulting them on what they want from wellness programs.

“Companies often select wellness solutions based on market trends or competitive offerings without adequately assessing the unique needs of their workforce,” says Sonia Ponzo, CEO of digital health startup Outset Wellness. “This top-down approach results in low engagement rates as employees don’t feel a personal connection or relevance to the program being implemented.”

Core Elements Of Wellness Programs

As we already noted, workplace wellness is multifaceted.

Let’s break that down a bit further and look at the different areas where you can focus on to drive wellness among the employee population.

Physical wellness

Everyone is different. Some folks will prefer the gym, others might love that yoga class you’ve been offering or want to join the company softball team. Variety is the key. Not everyone is going to engage with any one offering designed to improve physical fitness, so always be on the lookout for new activities the company can support people getting involved in. 

With that said, your approach to physical wellness isn’t just on display through these types of offerings, it’s in your culture as well. 

Author's Tip

Encourage regular activity breaks, whether you’re an organization that is in office or remote. If people feel like they can’t leave their desks without someone thinking they are slacking, it’s going to create unhealthy habits around physical activity and stressful relationships with work. Encourage people to leave their desks to go for walks, stretch or simply get some fresh air.

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Mental and emotional wellness

For a long time, there was a stigma around discussing mental health and managing stress. Over the last few years, that has changed and more employees than ever are focused on improving their mental health and finding employers that will help them find the resources they need. 

In fact, a study from the American Psychological Association showed that 92% of workers feel it’s important to work for an organization that values their mental health. 

Other studies have shown that as much as two thirds of the workforce is dealing with mental health challenges, but only about 19% of employees actually use mental health resources. 

The issue that these initiatives face when it comes to engagement is a problem of education with a number of studies showing that on average, more than 20% of employees are unsure about what their companies offer in this area.

Author's Tip

Creating in person and virtual trainings on how to access and navigate mental health resources helps to address any stigmas for those who are dealing with that and increases institutional knowledge around where and how to make most of these offerings.

Social wellness

Human connectivity is a vital part of anyone’s health. A person’s ability to empathize, build social networks, and find common ground with peers are all impacted by their sense of belonging in whatever communities or groups they belong to. 

Look at the words being used to describe ideal workforces these days and you’ll notice an underlying need for healthy social connectivity. This includes phrases like: 

  • Collaborative
  • Engaged
  • Creative 
  • Innovative
  • Resilient
  • Supportive

Author's Tip

With the variety of virtual event platforms on the market today, creating events with a wellness twist is relatively easy and provides a way for employees to create peer-to-peer support networks, adding another layer to employee wellness program offerings that feels more personal.

Financial wellness

Few things have the power to create stress for people the way financial issues do. A person’s sense of security can be threatened by financial woes, leading increased stress and inability to focus on their performance in the workplace. 

Helping employees with their financial wellness often means educating them on their overall spending and saving practices while helping them set short and long term financial goals. Giving employees a sense of stability helps them feel more confident and comfortable not just in their financial security, but with what they’re compensated for their work.

Author's Tip

Building a financial literacy program is best done with a holistic approach that aims to educate and help employees better understand everything from debt to retirement savings, credit scores, interest rates, and how they spend their income. Create an ongoing calendar of financial literacy events and keep the topics fresh and relevant to employee goals (home buying, health savings, student loan payoff, credit card management, etc). Also, it’s worth engaging with your 401k provider to develop interactive sessions where employees can ask a financial advisor specific questions.

Intellectual wellness

A person’s intellectual health is determined by their curiosity and participation in cultural and community activities. Lifelong learners typically possess a desire to be exposed to new things, be it ideas, people or challenges.

To support intellectual wellness, organizations need to approach their learning and development offerings with a mindset that sees training to enhance knowledge, skills and abilities as a foundation. But culturally, driving these behaviors comes down to rewarding creativity, curiosity and the courage to try new things, be it through financial rewards, promotions or recognition.

Author's Tip

Tie intellectual wellness into performance reviews by using the time assess where employees feel they are, where they want to go and how they see their career taking shape over the coming years. Nothing sparks curiosity and a desire to learn like helping someone paint a clearer picture of where they want to go and how to get there.

Other Types Of Employee Wellness Programs

Employee wellness programs can be tailored to address specific aspects of health and well-being depending on the wellness challenge you want to address.

Below is a detailed section outlining some of the other types of wellness programs that can be developed, each described with their core focus and offerings:

Nutritional Guidance Programs

These programs educate and encourage employees to adopt healthy eating habits by offering services like nutrition workshops, cooking classes, and access to dietitians.

Some companies also provide healthy meals at work or partner with meal delivery services to make nutritious food more accessible.

Preventative Care Measures

Aiming to prevent health issues before they start, these initiatives include regular health screenings, flu vaccinations, and wellness assessments.

They help detect potential health problems early, allowing for prompt treatment and management, thereby minimizing work absenteeism and health-related productivity losses.

Smoking Cessation Programs

Designed to help employees quit smoking, these programs offer support groups, resources, and sometimes medication or therapy to assist in breaking the habit. They contribute significantly to reducing health risks associated with smoking, such as lung cancer and heart disease.

Ergonomics and Physical Environment Improvements

These programs focus on creating a physical work environment that promotes good health, from ergonomic office furniture to the design of workspaces that encourage movement and reduce strain. They aim to prevent physical injuries and enhance comfort in the workplace.

Work-Life Balance Initiatives

These initiatives are a common topic at workplace wellness conferences.

They promote a balance between work responsibilities and personal life, which is crucial for mental and emotional well-being. They might include flexible working hours, remote work options, and policies that encourage time off and vacations.

Substance Abuse Programs

These programs offer support for employees dealing with substance abuse issues, providing confidential counseling, treatment referrals, and support groups. 

The Costs Of Implementing Wellness Programs

Implementing wellness programs involves certain costs, but the return on investment (ROI) can be substantial. 

For instance, a study from Harvard researchers found that, on average, medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, and absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73. 

Looking at just the physical health component, more recent surveys show that the cost of a physical wellness program can range anywhere from $150 - $1,200 per employee per year. 

Wellness platforms with sleek user interfaces that incorporate fitness devices were once a big cost, but today are more like table stakes. These will include mobile apps and a website that can help employees with access to health risk appraisals, online resources and wellness challenges.

This type of offering can run somewhere between $36-$90 per employee each year. 

But if you want to provide something more substantial, such as biometric screenings, health coaching and access to other resources, the costs will naturally begin to inflate. 

Costs vary based on program complexity but typically include:

  • Initial Setup Costs: These might include purchasing equipment for fitness centers or contracting health professionals.
  • Ongoing Operational Costs: Includes the costs of maintaining facilities, subscription fees for wellness platforms, and ongoing health supplies like flu shots.
  • Employee Participation Incentives: Some companies offer rewards or incentives to encourage active participation, which might include financial bonuses or gifts.

The Role Of Software In Wellness Program Development

Software plays a crucial role in the modern employee wellness program by streamlining administration and enhancing participant engagement. Key features include:

  • Real-Time Analytics: Software solutions provide managers and participants with immediate feedback on their wellness activities, enabling quick adjustments to improve effectiveness and measure employee engagement with wellness platforms.
  • Personalized Wellness Plans: Advanced platforms can offer tailored recommendations based on individual health data, increasing the personal relevance and effectiveness of wellness initiatives.
  • Security and Privacy Protocols: Whether it’s data collection, security, use, access controls or compliance with regulations, software providers are well equipped to navigate any privacy concerns employees might have related to their data and your wellness program. 

The number of solutions in the wellness market has proliferated in recent years, with the overall employee wellness market size valued at $53 billion in 2022.

With that many options, it can be hard to pick a tool that works for you, but Ponzo recommends being wary of one size fits all solutions. 

“The market for B2B wellness offerings has become increasingly saturated, with many solutions mimicking each other to stay competitive,” she 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.”

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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.