What is an employee 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.
Traditional wellness programs may include:
- Health risk appraisal
- Healthy lifestyles coaching
- Stress management
- Smoking cessation program
- Exercise programs
- Weight-loss support
- Wellness assessments
- Financial wellness
The best employee wellness programs are holistic, embedded into company culture, helping to support (and normalize) mental health issues, as well as promoting a physically healthy workforce.
Why we need workplace wellness programs more than ever
Even in 2023, 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.
And since the pandemic, global geopolitical and economic instability, and the cost of living crisis have put extra pressure on employees and companies.
They’ve put into sharp focus the need for employers to support employee wellness programs as they look for ways to reduce stress levels, improve health outcomes and increase engagement.
10 benefits of employee wellness programs
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. There are many ways that employee wellness programs benefit your workers:
1. 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.
2. Improved employee health
By changing unhealthy behaviors through wellness programs, employees will avoid health risks that may lead to chronic disease. The health benefits of being physically well also has positive knock-on effects on energy levels and happiness, which can also reduce mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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 should an employee wellness program include?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
According to Psychology Today, people who have a strong sense of purpose and meaning in their lives tend to have better mental health, overall wellbeing, and cognitive functioning compared to those who lack a sense of purpose.
More and more, employees want to work for organizations that have integrity and purpose, and at the same time, they crave growth and development opportunities that fulfill, challenge, and motivate them.
Our 2023 Global EX Trends report found that employees who feel that their organization embodies their values are 27% more likely to have higher employee engagement scores, and 23% more likely to stay working with the company for more than 3 years.
Being employed, then, isn’t just about having a job – it’s a part of a person’s value system. When a job brings a sense of purpose, and chimes with workers’ values, it’s good for employee wellness.
10 types of employee wellness programs
Employee wellness programs nowadays need to be so much more than the annual health risk assessment, health contingent wellness programs, or questionable biometric screening programs.
Yes, you can offer health insurance, health coaching, health screening, a group health plan and membership of local health clubs to all your team members to promote employee wellness, but there’s so much more to employee wellness than physical fitness.
By taking a more holistic approach and looking after your employees’ overall wellbeing, you’ll also get a happy, engaged workforce that will deliver to the bottom line and make your business a success.
1. Financial wellness
Worrying about money and finances is miserable for employees, and impacts negatively on both their personal and their professional lives. It also affects a business. When you incorporate financial wellness as one of your employee wellness programs, you’ll:
Avoid lost productivity
Improve work performance
Avoid health issues
Financial wellness initiatives you can implement include: retirement savings plans, ‘safety net’ insurance, tuition fee reimbursement, 529 plans and student loan support, an emergency loan fund, financial coaching, and financial planning.
2. Insist on work life balance
Organizations have leaned on employees through disruptive times, but now they are pushing back and reshaping the relationship they have with work to set healthy work life boundaries.
Companies must now support these boundary-pushing employees by insisting they take lunch breaks, all their vacation allowance, don’t come into the office too early or stay too late – and that they don’t feel guilty for taking time out from work. It’s essential that managers model these work life boundaries too.
Our 2023 Global EX Trends report found that of employees who feel that they have a good work-life balance, almost two-thirds (63%) are willing to go above and beyond for their organization.
3. Flexible working
The 40-hour, 9 to 5, five-day working week is on its way out in enlightened companies. In its place, employers are encouraging employees to work flexibly, and this can take several forms:
- Job sharing
- Flexible working hours (e.g. 8-3, 10-6)
- Working from home
- Even a four day week
4. Remote working
Working from home (WFH) and Working from Anywhere (WFA) was beginning to take off even before the pandemic. COVID-19 simply made it a necessity, and tech teams rose magnificently to the challenge of getting everybody online – and it worked.
While remote working isn’t right for every job, or every employer, the option to work remotely is a useful program to have to support employee wellness:
- Employees can focus on specific tasks quietly at home
- Employees recovering from illness can still work
- Poor weather or transport strikes won’t affect remote working
- Work can fit around family or medical arrangements
5. Give back to the community
Giving back should be part of your ESG program. And more and more employees want to work for organizations with integrity and purpose.The past few years have given employees the opportunity to rethink the role work plays in their lives and the impact it has on the people, communities, and world around them.
It’s well known that volunteering is good for overall well being: it gives a sense of purpose to people and stimulates the reward areas of the brain, in turn creating warm, positive feelings.
Encourage employee participation in company-wide community volunteering initiatives, in work time. You’ll reap the rewards in employee wellness.
6. Recognize your employees regularly
And by ‘your employees’ we mean everyone, from the office cleaner to the CEO. Doing a good job, meeting a goal or target, going above and beyond to help out a colleague – all these need to be celebrated.
Employee recognition programs can be shout outs on internal and external press and social media, peer-to-peer recognition, ‘Employee of the Month’ style awards, or something as simple as setting a budget aside for impromptu celebration lunches for projects done well.
7. Help parents
Juggling a career while being a parent is hard work. Children are unpredictable: just when you’re about to chair a Zoom meeting you may be called away because your toddler has been sick. Or you’ve been up all night with a teething baby just before you’re giving a keynote speech at a conference.
Offer parent support such as counselling, coaching, or an employee resource group (ERG) for working parents in your company to support each other. When you give your employees who are parents a better work-life balance, they’ll be more engaged and motivated at work.
8. Empower employees to be autonomous
People thrive when they’re left to get on with their job. Micromanagement is a killer when it comes to employee happiness and engagement.
When you recruit the right people, train them properly, encourage innovative thinking, put in managerial support (not meddling) and empower them to make their own decisions, you’ll motivate employees to thrive and deliver their best work for the business.
9. Stress busters
Even the best run organizations sometimes stress out their employees. And stressed employees are not the most effective. The important thing is to manage that stress and not let it go on for long.
Arrange stress-busting activities such as mindfulness sessions, Yoga, Pilates or even a visit from a therapy dog can help your employees to unwind and decompress after a challenging task or time.
10. Fitness provision
Memberships of local health clubs and fitness classes have long been a traditional wellness benefit given to employees to use out of work hours. Instead, encourage employees to use their memberships within work hours.
You could also turn an office space into a gym, or use outside space for games courts or a trim trail. Your people can work out with friends and you could even consider holding walking work meetings on the outdoor fitness trail.
How to innovate employee wellness in your organization
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.
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.
Even before 2020, employees have been working at surge levels for years, but now they’ve had enough and are reclaiming boundaries. They’re pushing back and reshaping the relationship they have with work to set healthier boundaries.
Our 2023 Global EX Trends report found that employees who feel that they have a good work life balance, almost two-thirds (63%) are willing to go above and beyond for their organization.
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 examples of companies with great wellness programs
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.”
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, our Well-being at Work solution and XM Discover, the world’s most advanced conversational analytics, you’ll be able to listen to every voice in your organization and understand what people are saying about your company, wherever they’re saying it.
You’ll be able to take the right actions in real-time to enhance workplace wellbeing, and look after the mental, physical and financial wellness of your valuable people.