Initiating Wellness Programs: Employers Need to Show Buy-in

Improved health and lower insurance claims are certainly some of the more obvious benefits of wellness programs, but a higher return on investment can come with a more satisfied workforce.

In order to improve morale, the employer needs to go all-in.

“The thing we find is it’s important for employees to see there is a buy-in from their employer, that their employer is invested in their wellness,” said Kris Huie, director of business services with YMCA of Greater Omaha. “Especially with a place like the YMCA, where we are more than just a gym, we are a family, community organization. When a company offers a specific benefit like the Y, they give the employee a place they can take their entire family and provide a community to go to outside of work.”

Huie said companies with successful programs tend to share certain characteristics, such as internal wellness committees.

“Wellness committees, either large or small, help put together ideas and plan activities,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a big, huge production. A company that I spoke with the other day put together different challenges, tracking how much people are walking throughout the month or tracking how many times employees get outside and get active. It can be simple or it can be something a little bit more complex like hosting a challenge between work groups which is all about having some fun and some competition.”

Leverage Resources

Some companies turn to technology to help advance their programs, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska.

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“We brand our internal wellness program as ‘Be Well at Blue’ and we partner with a platform, Vitality,” said Carrie Kahnk, wellbeing coordinator. “That provides us with an easy tool to reach our employees, it allows us to collect data. We can then provide those resources, that education, that support to engage the employees and we also incentivize them as well.”

Kahnk suggested any company of any size that launches a wellness program should strive to be a partner in their employees’ health and wellness as much as possible.

“We don’t want to be telling our employees ‘Here’s things that you have to change,’ or ‘These are goals you have to set,’” she said. “We do assessments to show them where they’re at and then steer them toward resources, whether it’s a tobacco cessation program or weight loss resources or mental well-being. We also have those fun components such as step challenges; most people thrive on community and that’s friendly competition.”

William “Buddy” Goodenkauf, occupational health and wellness manager with Fit For Work offered through Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals, said a new wellness program doesn’t have to be complicated or follow one certain model to make a difference in workers’ lives.

“Anytime you start looking at wellness, it’s important to look at wellness with a holistic approach,” he said. “Most people look at it as just fitness and nutrition and they get caught up in chasing gym memberships or how to eat healthy ignoring that a lot of wellness comes from sleep habits. At Madonna, our specialists provide education on economic wellness, sleep, and stress management in addition to fitness and nutrition.”

Goodenkauf added that while there are long-term payoffs to a wellness program, management can’t assess it like other investments.

“From a CEO perspective, it’s hard to look at it just from ROI because there’s usually an investment up front,” he said. “The investment pays off in savings through health insurance, less sick time taken in PTO. I think that’s what’s important for C-suite executives to look at, the downstream effects on employees.”

Don’t Overlook the Obvious

Lori Thomas, director of workplace culture and wellbeing with The Wellbeing Partners, recommended beginners start small and expand over time. She said there are plenty of simple things that companies tend to overlook when considering wellness.

“First and foremost, look at environmental wellness,” she said. “Think of the work environment – is there clean air? Is there lighting? Is it noisy or too cold? Do they have all the proper equipment they need? That’s an area so many businesses don’t associate with wellness when really it’s such a huge part of it.”

Thomas also suggested looking for opportunities to marry wellness with other employee activities, getting extra mileage out of time and money invested, such as supporting a nonprofit by participating in a fundraising walk.

“The companies that do this best are ones that integrate it into the core of what their organization is and does and it doesn’t feel like an add-on,” she said. “We are in a day and age where being busy is almost a badge of honor and it really shouldn’t be. Companies need to make sure employees are not just working for a paycheck, but that their work part of life is also fulfilling.”