How to Implement and Manage an Employee Wellness Program

Author: Francis P. Morley

Studies have shown that employers, large and small, have benefited greatly by implementing and maintaining an employee wellness program. Over time, benefits reported by employers include reduced health care related costs, increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, higher morale and increased employee retention.

Wellness programs offered by employers vary widely depending on the size, culture, resources and industry of the employer. Some programs are very simple and inexpensive to implement and manage, while others are more complex and require substantial financial resources, but deliver overall benefits to the employer over time in health care related cost reductions, increased productivity and employee retention.

An employer should review all of the steps below and incorporate those items that best fit the employer's size, budget restrictions, needs and resources.

Step 1: Recognize the Benefits of an Employee Wellness Program

An employer should recognize the benefits of an effective employee wellness program for both employees and the employer.

Some of the more common benefits for employees include:

  • Improved physical fitness;
  • Weight reduction;
  • Smoking cessation;
  • Reduced levels of stress;
  • Higher self-image and confidence;
  • Better nutrition; and
  • Healthier lifestyle.

Common benefits for the employer include:

  • Reduced health care costs over time;
  • Increased employee productivity;
  • Higher employee morale;
  • Improved employee retention and recruitment; and
  • Reduced absenteeism.

It is highly important to ensure upper management recognizes the benefits of a wellness program and supports the idea of implementing a wellness program in the company. Without upper management support, it will be difficult to get a program off the ground, and it will make gaining employee interest and participation even harder.

Step 2: Set Goals

Program goals should be set at the outset. An employer should keep in mind that wellness programs can yield benefits across a broad spectrum, some tangible and some intangible.

Certain benefits of a wellness program can be measured in a short period of time, while other benefits may take many months or years to measure.

Step 3: Determine Employee Interests and Needs for a Wellness Program

A successful employee wellness program hinges upon employee participation in the program. In order to design and implement a successful program, an employer should conduct an employee survey to determine the programs that are most appealing to the largest number of employees.

An employer can ask if employees are interested in specific employer-sponsored or -subsidized offerings, such as:

  • Smoking cessation programs;
  • Weight loss programs;
  • Health and fitness gym memberships;
  • Stress reduction programs;
  • Vaccination clinics;
  • Educational information on nutrition and healthy eating habits; and
  • Exercise clubs at work (e.g., walking, jogging, yoga, biking).

Wellness programs should be designed around the areas of most interest to employees since that will generate the highest level of participation in the program and yield the highest benefit to both the employer and employee at the lowest cost to the employer.

Step 4: Develop a Wellness Program Budget

A comprehensive wellness program budget should be developed based on the needs, goals and resources of the organization. An employer should consider modestly increasing employee contributions toward health care costs to help defray some of the costs of implementing and maintaining an employee wellness program.

Step 5: Choose Components for the Wellness Program

Wellness programs vary widely based on an employer's size, culture, resources and industry and on employees' interests. Some are very simple and low in cost to administer while others are complex and require substantial resources to implement.

An employer should consider the following types of benefits when designing a wellness program. An analysis of all the different types will help an employer choose those that will best fit the employer's goals and budgetary constraints and employees' goals. An employer should recognize that a higher upfront investment in a wellness program (e.g., time, physical resources, finances) can result in higher cost savings over time, increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, higher employee morale and increased employee retention.

Smoking Cessation. An employer can provide an on-site smoking cessation clinic, access to smoking cessation hotlines and access to reduced cost or free smoking cessation materials and/or products.

Stress Reduction. An employer can provide flexible work schedules to encourage a healthy work/life balance and provide onsite stress reduction clinics, online resources to manage and reduce stress and access to stress reduction counseling.

Weight Loss. An employer can offer incentives for participating in a weight loss program, offer onsite weight loss classes or provide free or subsidized access to an offsite or online weight loss program (e.g., Weight Watchers), and encourage exercise programs.

Financial Incentives. An employer can offer financial incentives to employees for participating in wellness programs, such as cash incentives, gift cards or reductions in employee contributions to health care costs. The employer must ensure that all financial incentives comply with applicable laws.

Health Screening and Health Risk Assessments. An employer can offer free health screening and/or require participation in health risk assessments. The employer must ensure that these programs comply with all applicable laws.

Vaccination Clinics. An employer can sponsor or host a vaccination clinic in an effort to boost the number of employees who receive recommended vaccinations.

Fitness Clubs and Exercise Programs. An employer can provide a complimentary onsite fitness center, but it must beware of potential liabilities due to injury and potential increases in workers' compensation claims. To cut this risk, an employer can instead provide free or subsidized memberships to offsite fitness centers. An employer can also consider establishing onsite exercise programs such as a walking club, aerobics class or yoga class and providing employees the time to participate (such as before or after work, during lunch or an exercise break during work hours).

Nutritional Education. An employer can provide employees with complimentary online access or printed materials regarding the benefits of good nutrition and diet and how to eat healthier. Benefits to employees and employers of better nutrition and a healthier diet include:

  • Reduced instances of obesity and diabetes;
  • Reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels; and
  • Overall increase in well-being and productivity.

Step 6: Communicate Availability of Wellness Program

Essential to the success of a wellness program is ensuring all employees are aware of it and all the benefits offered. An employer should use multiple communication methods, such as:

  • Sending or emailing notices directly to employees;
  • Putting posters or brochures in common areas, such as lobbies, break rooms and hallways; and
  • Holding company- or department-wide meetings.

Communication should come from upper management, who should be encouraging employee participation.

Step 7: Comply With Applicable Laws

An employer must be aware of, and comply with, all laws and regulations with respect to the implementation and maintenance of wellness programs, such as:

  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA);
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA); and
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Aside from these federal laws, an employer must also check state laws to determine if they will have an impact on employee wellness programs.

Step 8: Evaluate Success and Manage the Program

An employer must proactively manage, monitor and evaluate the success of its wellness program, keeping in mind that some areas of success can be measured in a short period of time while other benefits may not be realized for many months or even years. Some questions to ask in an evaluation include:

  • What is the employee participation level? Which programs could be enhanced to increase employee participation? Which programs can be reduced or eliminated due to low employee interest?
  • What is the return on investment (ROI)? Evaluate which programs should be enhanced or reduced to increase the ROI.
  • Have the employer's goals been met? Has the program contributed to a reduction in health care related costs, a reduction in absenteeism, increased productivity, higher employee morale and increased employee retention?

Additional Resources

Employee Management > Disabilities (ADA): Federal > Wellness Programs

Employee Benefits > Health Information and Privacy (HIPAA): Federal > Wellness Programs

Employee Management > EEO - Discrimination: Federal > Genetic Information - Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act