Benefits and Compensation

The Do’s and Don’ts of Employee Wellness Programs

Wellness. It can be such a convoluted word—one of those business-y buzzwords that means a thousand things to a thousand people.

If you want your employees to be as successful as possible, wellness could very well be a part of that equation. As companies continue to take a more person-focused approach to HR in 2023 and beyond, more and more businesses are implementing wellness programs and encouraging workers to focus on their health. Employee wellness is an often-discussed topic in HR circles, but the truth is, there are ways to promote employee wellness that are beneficial and ways that are sleazy (at best) and unethical (at worst). Workplace wellness is an $8 billion industry, and like any other business behemoth, it can be twisted into something it shouldn’t be. Wellness programs that highlight fatphobia, force employees to comply with certain health practices, or share unnecessary medical information aren’t really wellness programs at all because none of those things is good for your employees.

If you’re looking to implement an employee wellness program in 2023 or are simply taking stock of the one you already have, it’s essential to think over a few best practices. Here are some do’s and don’ts of great employee wellness programs. If you truly want your employees to be well, which all good HR professionals do, it’s important to consistently evaluate if your policies and programs are on the correct path.

Do: Get Management on Board

If the top dogs at your company are participating in your wellness program, you’re much more likely to see employee enthusiasm. See if your CEO can show up to a few of your in-office yoga classes or if the executive board is interested in forming a team for your steps challenge. If management is less than enthusiastic, remind them that wellness isn’t just about employee morale or recruitment. It’s also about the simple fact that healthier employees will be better workers, will stick around longer, and will be happier overall, likely leading to higher profits for the company. Wellness isn’t just a buzzword or branding tool; it’s truly an initiative that can change your business from the inside out.

Don’t: Require Participation in Wellness Programs

At the end of the day, an employee’s health isn’t necessarily your business. That means if an employee chooses not to participate in a wellness program, that should be a respected choice. You can’t tell what someone’s health is like by looking at them, and many aspects of a person’s health need to be kept between the individual and the individual’s doctor. Therefore, if someone declines to attend the companywide 5K or take advantage of a free gym membership, that person should be treated the same as any other employee.

Do: Keep It Fun and Lighthearted

Wellness doesn’t have to be a chore. Implementing things like prizes, teams, and public recognition can encourage employees to participate in wellness programs without it feeling mandatory or stressful. Everyone loves a little competition now and then! You should also pause and ask employees what they think makes a great wellness program and what they’re most likely to utilize. A simple employee survey can gather this information quickly. Otherwise, you’re just handing down decrees on what the HR team thinks employees want, which is rarely helpful. By including employees in the process, you’ll have a better chance of creating a program that people will utilize and enjoy.

Don’t: Underspend

Wellness programs likely need a budget to work well. Don’t be afraid to drop some resources on employee wellness. Proclaiming that health and wellness matter to your company without actually backing it up with dollars is a no-go. Again, look at it as a long-term investment—healthy employees will lead to a healthier organization. You don’t need to spend millions, but by showing that wellness matters to your company, you’re putting your money where your mouth is. The budget can be large (including therapy in your healthcare plan, offering gym memberships, or bringing in a nutritionist to work with your employees) or small (healthier snacks in the break room or prizes for employees who bike to work or take meditation breaks), but there should be some type of financial investment to coincide with any wellness program.

Do: Take a Holistic View of Wellness

Is there a correlation between weight and health? Absolutely. But by focusing only on weight loss programs, your company may miss an opportunity to highlight other aspects of employee health. Consider including therapy vouchers in addition to gym memberships or stress relief tools in addition to step trackers. Globally, mental health issues are the number one cause of illness. America in particular has seen a mental health pandemic right along with COVID, and mental health difficulties should be treated as seriously as any other illness. Health is about much more than employee weight, and even your physically fit employees could probably stand to increase their overall health. Once again, this is where an employee survey or employee feedback could be really helpful. Your workforce knows their own bodies, and they know what will help them get well. Let them tell you what would be helpful instead of the other way around.

Don’t: Be Condescending

Your employees have known about the dangers of smoking and too much junk food since elementary school. Health and wellness education can really easily trod into condescension—it’s news to no one that soda is bad for you and walking is good for you. Try to avoid sending out reading material or hanging up posters that reiterate very obvious facts. Instead, find new and innovative ways to encourage employees to actually implement those changes in their lives. Maybe it’s a cash bonus for employees who pledge to quit smoking or vending machines with healthy snacks instead of Kit Kat bars in the break room. Practical changes instead of the same old health information they’ve been getting for years are more likely to make a difference and also honor your employees’ intelligence.

Claire Swinarski is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.