Employee Wellness Programs Need to Get Personal to Succeed

By Lorna Borenstein | Small Business

While 50 percent of companies with more than 50 employees have wellness programs, they are not achieving the desired employee health improvements, the New York Times recently reported. Wellness programs can work, if properly conceived and implemented -- the problem is they rarely are.

Typically, workplace-wellness programs employ a “carrot-and-stick” approach where the employee is financially rewarded for participation through lower health-care premiums and penalized with higher premiums if they do not participate. This approach is not only failing to improve the health of our workforce, but actually alienating workers by making them feel coerced into addressing lifestyle issues, and disciplined if they do not.

Wellness-program success begins with management.

Healthy employees make for engaged, happy and productive team members. As employers, this is what we want! However, motivation to make personal wellness a priority is a personal decision, and the “carrot-and-stick” approach is simply not a positive method to encourage employees to better themselves.

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Instead of rewarding or penalizing employees financially, as CEO and founder of Grokker, I “walk the talk” to ensure the company’s culture actively supports each employee’s personal wellness without being preachy or condescending.

I do this by displaying my own commitment to wellness, sharing my Eat 3, Move 3, Sleep 8 mantra and regularly practicing my morning yoga in our offices or joining the team in grueling HIIT workouts.

Financially punishing one employee for walking fewer steps than another or for eating too many chocolate chip cookies during lunch only creates hostility within a team. Rather, offer everyone a supportive environment focused on the whole self.

Focus on overall well-being, not just physical health.

While smoking cessation and weight loss are important health goals, overall well-being goes beyond the physical to include stress management, resilience and mindfulness.

Employees’ self-esteem and positive feelings towards work have a direct effect on eating habits, sleep and exercise, and in turn those habits directly correlate to stress levels.

After all, an overweight colleague who successfully manages work-life balance may be infinitely more productive than their thinner counterpart who pulls all-nighters and seems constantly frazzled.

A thoughtful wellness program advances health in all aspects -- physically, emotionally and psychologically -- because holistically caring for ourselves is the only path to true total wellness. For employees, this translates into increased productivity, creative thinking, comradery and in turn, greater success for the company as a whole.

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Listen to what employees want out of a wellness program.

Johnson & Johnson is a great example of a company that has adapted its wellness program based on employee feedback. Seeing low participation in certain financial-incentive programs, the company switched its focus to campaigns without monetary rewards, such as a walking program that honors employees taking over a million steps per year.

To facilitate the most participation in wellness activities, ask what your employees desire. In metropolitan cities, where gym memberships and packages at boutique studios can soar beyond a typical monthly budget, team members may simply want to be reimbursed for these fitness “luxuries.” Perhaps your team is interested in competing in local club sports as a company or a quarterly 5K race together. If healthier eating is a priority, you might consider offering a subscription to a service such as Fresh Direct for your office instead of a vending machine.

When given the choice to define their wellness priorities, employees are much more likely to participate and these incentives will help form lifelong healthy habits.

Make it personal.

“It’s personal” is a core value at Grokker, and our company’s culture encourages each team member to take care of themselves, however it best suits them. We cater in lunch every day to encourage the team to take a true break and eat together, family style. We talk about family, dating, current events and health issues. Above all else, we laugh and relax.

Establishing personal “joy” goals are part of our quarterly performance management. These comprise actionable work-life balance goals or fitness/physical health goals ranging from, “I want to coach my daughter’s soccer team,” “I want to cook more than three meals at home each week,” “I want to lose 10 pounds before my reunion” or “I want to practice yoga and meditate three times a week.”

Through focusing on the personal-wellness goals of each team member, without punitive financial policies, you can also build a powerful culture of healthy individuals who take their well-being seriously.

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