The secret of successful employee wellness programs

Out of the numerous methods that businesses use to try and engage workers, wellness programs seem to be one of the most consistent. The latest proof point comes from employee health specialist Virgin Pulse. The firm, a part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, recently conducted a study that found 85 percent of companies with a well-run wellness program see a “high” impact on worker engagement and retention.

A healthy approach

There are two main areas where a wellness program can benefit a workforce. The one that usually receives the most attention is, naturally, physical health. Countless articles have been written about how major companies such as Apple, Bank and America and Walgreens are taking an active role in their employees’ well-being.

Of course, far fewer case studies are dedicated to small businesses. The average company doesn’t provide in-house gyms and the other extravagant perks offered by the Fortune 500. But there much more practical alternatives that often achieve the same result. Instead of setting up a dedicated employee fitness club, for example, employers can simply offer free access to the nearest gym. It’s a fast-rising practice that consulting firm Healthy Contributions claims can lead employees to invest significantly more in their physical well-being.

Heidi Holliday, the consulting firm’s director, wrote in the New York Times that data from its clients shows workers who are reimbursed for gym memberships are twice as likely to keep at it at the end of a 12-month contract. Participation goes up even more when the offer is tied to attendance goals. Businesses with a younger workforce can up the incentive further by reimbursing employers for purchasing fitness apps and even fitness trackers.

Another approach is to focus on specific health concerns. A widely-cited Harvard Business Review report from 2010 details how one unnamed company decided to test this model by offering cardiac exercise training to a random sample of 185 workers, plus their spouses. Medical claim costs subsequently dropped by $1,421 per participant in one year, which amounted to $6 in health care savings for every dollar spent.

A more accessible version of this strategy is investing in ergonomic chairs. Nearly half of Americans suffer from back pain and other musculoskeletal issues, which is why employers are estimated to spend three times as much on such disorders than cardiovascular disease. Proper seating that prevents slouching at the office can go a long way towards alleviating the issue for a company’s workers.

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Focusing on the goal

Because there usually are only so many resources available for a wellness program, a business should align the incentives it offers as closely as possible with employee needs. These can vary a great deal. A traditional workforce may be best served by ergonomic chairs or free health screenings, while a company with mostly millennial employees could potentially make just as big of an impact with complimentary gym passes.

AmeriaHealth, a New Jersey insurer, recommends conducting an internal survey to understand exactly what employees require. The touchy nature of the subject means that businesses should strongly consider anonymizing the poll in the interest of gaining the most accurate feedback. Often times, for example, it turns out that employees participate in wellness programs not only – or even mainly – because of the physical exercise aspect.

The Virgin Pulse study found that 85 percent of workers list stress management as a key reason for why they choose to take part. This is the other main area where a wellness program can make a big impact. As a result, large companies are increasingly implementing various mental health initiatives to address the need directly. Small businesses can follow their example just as they do in the physical wellness department.

Since stress is often caused by financial worries, some companies offer employees a free one-time consultation with a student loan expert and access to budget planning tools. Others are taking a more indirect approach to making employees’ lives more pleasant, which is what’s driving the growing trend of redesigning offices to feel more homely.

Regardless of exactly how a wellness program is implemented, patience is a core requirement. Workers often take time to accept their employer’s interest in their health. The Harvard Business Review report detailed that companies with successful wellness programs take a long-term approach and make health a regular talking point, rather than merely putting another to-do item on employees’ calendar.

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