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Employee Experience

How to build a healthy company culture with employee wellness programs

Employee wellbeing is more than just physical health; your employee wellness program needs to reflect that. Take a holistic approach to wellness and reap the benefits of an engaged workforce.

We’re still picking up the pieces after the COVID-19 pandemic rode roughshod over employee wellbeing, especially impacting mental health. A study of more than 2,000 employees conducted in March/April 2020 in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, and the US revealed that two out of five (41.6%) respondents felt their mental health had declined since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Respondents said that more anxiety and more stress contributed to that decline. When asked what was contributing most to their increased stress levels, people listed:

  • Contracting COVID-19
  • Financial pressure
  • Being stuck at home
  • Loneliness/social isolation
  • Fears about job security

Physical health suffered too, with locked-down employees overconsuming high fat/salt/sugar foods rather than healthy snacks, drinking more alcohol, and taking less exercise. In fact, some  61% of American adults experienced unwanted weight changes as a result of the pandemic.

It’s put into sharp focus the need for employers to support employee wellness programs as they look for ways to reduce stress levels, and increase engagement.

What is a workplace wellness program?

A workplace wellness program is a suite of resources that organizations make available to employees to support their overall health and wellbeing. Once merely a nice-to-have, wellness programs are becoming a necessity for modern companies.

The best ones are embedded into company culture, helping to support (and normalize) mental health issues, as well as promoting a physically healthy workforce. Wellness programs may include:

  • Stress management
  • Smoking cessation programs
  • Exercise programs
  • Weight-loss support
  • Wellness assessments

wellness program visual

The benefits of a health and wellness program – for employees

There are many ways that employee wellness programs benefit your workers:

Positive behavioral change

Wellness programs are great at breaking entrenched, unhealthy workforce habits that are also health risks, such as smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, eating a poor diet, and not managing stress and mental health well. A supportive culture will encourage teams to adopt healthy behaviors that will spread into all areas of their lives.

Improved employee health

By changing unhealthy behaviors through wellness programs, employees will avoid health risks that may lead to chronic disease. Being physically healthy also has positive knock-on effects on energy levels and happiness, which can also reduce mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Improved employee engagement

When a company’s culture focuses on collective employee wellness, people feel more connected to their colleagues, their teams and the company. Employee morale, teamwork, and workplace relationships improve with a sense of belonging, and contribute to a stellar employee experience. A survey by Virgin Pulse found that 85% of companies say wellness programs support employee engagement. Approximately 42% of the survey respondents reported that their top reason for implementing a wellness program was to improve employee engagement.

Less absenteeism

When employees feel healthier, happier and more supported, they are less likely to take sick days, and are more motivated to come to work and give their best. Wellness programs improve employee health and morale – two factors that decrease absenteeism.

More team bonding

Wellness programs, particularly when they include team-based activities, are great for strengthening employee relationships as people work together, encourage each other and hold everyone equally accountable for achieving goals. Camaraderie facilitates better communication and collaboration at work.

More empowered employees

Employees who say their company proactively shares mental health resources are 61% more likely to feel their company is communicating to them the information they need to look out for their own wellbeing.

The benefits of a health and wellness program – for companies

Wellness programs are a substantial investment for companies, and they have to be worthwhile to be funded. Innovative companies understand that happy, engaged, empowered employees are good for an organization, and there are also bottom-line impacts to keep the finance department happy:

Reduced healthcare costs

According to a Harvard Wellness Program Meta Study, for every dollar that’s spent on a wellness program, a company saves $3.27 because of reduced healthcare costs. Workplace wellness programs can result in measurable savings for a company in the form of reduced healthcare costs. By improving the health of a company's workforce, those employees are less likely to get sick or be injured on the job. This means that healthy employees are receiving medical care less frequently, saving both themselves and the organization money in healthcare expenses.

Employer of choice

The American Psychological Association reports that 89% of employees will recommend their company as a good place to work if the company supports wellbeing initiatives.

Attracts new talent

Besides salary, prospective employees are also interested in seeing what other benefits a company has to offer employees. Research shows that many job candidates include wellness programs on the list of benefits that are extremely important to them.


Companies can also use wellness programs to create a strong sense of loyalty among their employees and improve long-term retention.

What are the components of successful wellness programs?

So as we can see, employee wellness programs are going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting in this post-pandemic world of work. Whether you’re constructing a new wellness program at your organization, or looking to bolster your wellness offerings, here are some aspects your employee wellness program should cover:

Physical health

Employees’ physical health plays a major role in their overall wellbeing, as well as their engagement and attitudes towards work. When employees practice unhealthy habits – such as not getting enough sleep or eating diets low in necessary nutrients – not only do they not feel their best, they can’t perform their best at work. Workplace wellness programs, such as on-site (or virtual) yoga classes, fitness classes, gym memberships, healthy eating, and nutrition coaching, smoking cessation programs, sleep training, flu shots, and more, can help support and promote healthy habits.

Employees running in a field

Mental health

Stress is one of the biggest threats to employee engagement, and as mentioned above, employees’ stress levels skyrocketed during COVID-19. To help employees cope with stress, wellness programs can offer mental health resources – such as counseling – through employee assistance programs (EAPs) or other mental health management resources. These could include (on-site or virtual) stress management classes, flexible work schedules, courses in meditation or yoga, specialized nap rooms, or chair massages.

Financial wellbeing

Some of your employees might find managing a budget or even paying for everyday expenses difficult. Offering guided support programs around financial wellbeing, such as webinars or online courses, can help employees feel more confident in managing their personal finances – and better prepared for the unexpected.

Social wellbeing

Employees who have supportive connections in the workplace are more likely to feel connected to their jobs and more engaged with their work. For those employees who lack social connection, wellness programs can help facilitate like-minded connections in a healthy setting. Whether it’s through book clubs, running (or walking) clubs, on-site fitness classes, or fitness challenges, employees feel more engaged (and with renewed energy!) when they can connect with their colleagues.

Occupational wellbeing

Wellness and productivity go hand-in-hand. Employers benefit from supporting healthy habits that boost work performance. For example, companies can encourage employees to take regular breaks throughout the day, go for a walk when they are feeling stressed, and provide healthy homemade food or energy-boosting snacks in lunch and break rooms.

When designing your wellness program, remember to do so holistically; the sum of the above components is greater than the individual parts.

Making employee wellness programs part of your company culture

Get company culture right

There’s a tendency for many employee wellness programs to be a mishmash of unconnected initiatives that don’t really deliver holistic employee benefits. For example, a gym membership and organic food in the canteen cannot mitigate a culture where employees feel pressured to work all hours. A comprehensive wellness program will focus on fostering the best organizational culture and values. When communication, leadership, role clarity, and structures are all clear, they positively impact employee mental health.

Bowl of healthy vegetables and fish

Measure employee wellness

It’s important to find out where your employees are at, healthwise, and what worksite wellness programs are already in place so you can identify the gaps and health risks. Surveys are your ally here; either include wellbeing questions in your employee engagement survey or send round pulse surveys that cover aspects of mental health, physical health, financial literacy, social needs and work-life balance.

Get leaders on board

Strong leadership and management is a major factor in promoting good mental health and wellbeing for employees. The attitude and abilities of an employee’s immediate line manager has a substantial impact on their mental health. Therefore it’s essential that leaders:

  • Are fair and approachable
  • Help employees handle work-related stress
  • Actively discuss the importance of mental health
  • Support employees through mental health issues
  • Facilitate access to mental health resources
  • Nurture good working relationships throughout the company

Insist on healthier working practices

The pandemic blurred the lines between work time and home time, creating an unhealthy ‘always on’ remote working culture. A comprehensive wellness program needs to include explicit permission for employees to switch off, take time out, get some physical activity by going out for a walk, enjoy healthy snacks or simply have a chat with a coworker.

Make work a safe space

Employees must feel that they can discuss their wellbeing - mental, physical, social, or financial - safely and openly. Surveys, by their anonymous nature can contribute to this as employees feel they can say what they really feel. The gold standard is, though, a company with such a strong culture of belonging that people feel they can speak freely and bring their authentic selves to work.

Two companies with great wellness programs

Bright Horizons

Employee's baby happy at daycare

Bright Horizons found that only 20% of their teachers were using their 401(k) plan, even though it was considered a valuable retention benefit in the industry. Instead of guessing, Bright Horizons went to the source and asked their employees in an overall wellbeing survey why they weren’t taking part in the program.

”Financial wellbeing was identified as an area of concern for the center staff, particularly around managing a budget and paying for everyday expenses,” said Kristin Henderson, Director of Institutional Research at Bright Horizons.

In response, Bright Horizons created a financial wellness program that included webinars, online resources, and personal coaching. Participants in the financial wellness program scored higher on a well-being scale than non-participants. They also showed increased confidence in their ability to create budgets and financial plans.

“Ultimately, we wanted to help people feel financially secure,” said Kristin. “It really was about looking at what we had, repackaging it, rebranding it, and communicating it to our workforce.”

Watch now: Employee wellness at Bright Horizons


Telefonica mission statement

At the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, Telefónica sprung into action by building and launching a pulse survey with Qualtrics. The pulse uncovered the biggest challenges facing Telefónica employees globally, and how the company could act responsibly.

“Longer workdays and working at home, dealing with family responsibilities were our two biggest concerns globally. When we looked at what people wanted, over a quarter wanted more guidance on organizing their day. Nearly half were after more information on balancing work and life.”

~Sergio De La Calle Asensio, Head of Engagement at Telefónica.

That feedback led Telefónica to implement processes and programs to support employees’ well-being during COVID-19, and beyond into the post-pandemic world.

Ask employees about workplace wellness - then act!

As we’ve seen above with Bright Horizons and Telefónica, innovative companies are using surveys to ask employees what they want to see in a health and wellness program. Every company is different, and employees will ask for different things. With Qualtrics surveys, you’ll be able to listen to every voice in your organization, take the right actions to enhance workplace wellbeing, and look after your valuable people.

Put your people at the heart of your employee wellness program