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      New thoughts on workplace wellness

      February 26, 2021 - 24 min read

      Workplace wellness, or corporate wellness, isn’t a new concept. At the bank my father worked at, they offered nutritious meals onsite at a low cost as far back as the 1970s. I doubt they called their lunches a “wellness perk,” but a company today would certainly tout it as one.

      Workplace Wellness main

      Jump to section

      Why workplace wellness?

      The relationship between stress and productivity

      Do workplace wellness programs work?

      Examples of great workplace wellness programs

      7 tips to achieve workplace wellness

      In Conclusion


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      For decades, companies have offered food and wellness assessments as part of health insurance plans, and informal health challenges like counting monthly steps as a way to encourage healthy choices among their employees. 

      Such programming tended to be about containing health insurance costs, mitigating chronic disease, and strengthening workers’ loyalty more than a commitment to the “whole person.” 

      Recently, however, companies that want to compete for younger employees and in-demand skills have been stepping up their wellness game. As we see more research on the damaging pressures of modern life, companies are also realizing the need to broaden their approach to wellness to keep their current employees--from all generations--healthier, more productive, and more agile in the face of uncertainty. 

      Tech companies are famous for offering free meals, bicycles to ride from building to building, relaxation rooms, and onsite fitness opportunities. The idea is that, by committing to the health and wellness of their employees, they can attract, grow, and keep skilled and hard-working talent. 

      Are there effective wellness options other than dedicated nap rooms and Wednesday yoga classes? Of course. In fact, some of the most effective ways you can commit to the health and wellness of your staff may cost very little to implement. As more and more employees move into remote work, organizations need to continue evolving how they think about workplace wellness to meet the evolving needs of the workforce.


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      Why workplace wellness?

      In no small part, companies are offering wellness perks as a way to remain competitive for top employees. 

      If your rival companies have onsite vaccination clinics and mason jars of granola in the break room, you may feel compelled to at least match, if not top, their offerings. Beyond that, however, is the recognition that “the work environment should be a place where employees can feel comfortable, valued, and taken care of.” 

      Companies are seeking to create a culture of care, of respect for the whole person, and workplace wellness offerings are a great step in that direction.

      Curious how personalized support can improve employee wellness?

      The relationship between stress and productivity

      We’ve likely all experienced it — that “zone” where you have just the right amount of stress/motivation to keep you active and engaged on a project. You’re not bored, and you’re not anxious. 

      Researchers have created a performance curve that shows how your best work is likely to come when you are being pushed just outside of your comfort zone, but aren’t feeling too much strain from the task/deadline/responsibility. 

      This concept of a performance curve shows that the relationship between stress and productivity is complex. We’re not as effective with no stress, but we risk burnout with too much. Keeping this balance in check is exactly where wellness programming can step in.


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      Do workplace wellness programs work?

      The jury on the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs is still out. The research on program effectiveness is relatively new, and studies are utilizing only short-term data thus far. 

      One such study showed that participants in wellness programs reported increased physical activity and active weight management. While this study did not show gains in other key factors like improved sleep or better food choices, the researchers acknowledged that their investigation may not have been lengthy enough to show additional benefits. 

      In short, you likely need to invest in workplace wellness for the long term if you expect to make a measurable difference in the lives of your employees.

      Examples of great workplace wellness programs

      Here is a list of workplace wellness programs that have been popular over time throughout the professional world. Use these as a guide or inspiration if you’re considering starting such a program for your organization. New programs, and improved variations on old ones, are constantly emerging as both the products and services and the needs of the workforce evolve.

      Stress reduction tools

      As wellness programs go, this one is likely the least expensive option, and an easy place to start. Send out weekly messages about ways to reduce stress, improve sleep, handle conflict, and so on. 

      Creating a culture of care by sharing this kind of information can be an effective way to start interacting with your employees about their health and wellness. Be realistic about the gap between the current work environment and the culture of care you envision, though. If the organization is high-pressure, dog-eat-dog, up-or-out mentality, sending messages about wellness and stress reduction without implementing any tangible offerings or changes to the system might be worse than doing nothing.

      BETTER: Find ways to get your employees to engage with the messages — set up a stress reduction chatroom on Slack, or provide space over lunch to talk about the week’s topics. The message will have considerably more influence if your employees are talking and thinking about it. EVEN BETTER: Provide space for employee-led sessions (meditation, breathing, journaling) so that employees can try out new practices.

      Weight loss programs

      Since we eat as many as ⅓ of our meals while on the job, sponsoring a weight loss program could be a great fit for your work community. 

      Your company’s insurance program might have a weight loss program that you could offer, or perhaps you can team up with a wellness center in town to offer programming. A CAVEAT: Make sure that, in promoting your weight loss options, you don’t weight shame those who work for you and are overweight or obese. For example, adding a competitive component to the program, or anything of a public nature, might have exactly the opposite effect you intended.

      BETTER: Broaden the scope to incorporate healthy eating, fueling for energy and performance, cooking and food prep hacks and reach more of your workforce.  EVEN BETTER: Make weight loss just one component of a messaging and action campaign. Upgrade the in-office snack and catering options to support healthy food choices and create a user-friendly guide to the technology, apps, services, and employee communities that can augment and support a weight loss effort, especially if they are offered at a discount to employees.

      Smoking cessation programs

      Fewer and fewer workplaces allow smoking on the premises, so supporting your employees who are ready to quit could be an effective way to support their wellness. 

      Again, check with your insurance provider to see if they offer smoking cessation counseling or programming. 

      Another option, which you could access at little to no cost, could be available through your state’s health department. They may offer a free quit line and even nicotine replacement products. 

      Health risk assessments/screenings

      Even though annual physicals are included in many health insurance policies, only about one in five people in the US are seen for a wellness visit each year. 

      Among the important information that can be gleaned from such visits are blood sugar levels, blood pressure numbers, and cholesterol levels — all of which can be indicators of health issues that should be addressed immediately. 

      Offering onsite assessments and opportunities to conduct basic screenings — at the office and on work time — could encourage those who do not regularly get a physical to be more aware of these basic health markers. 

      THE CONNECTOR: These assessments and screenings will be most effective when offered in conjunction with other wellness offerings. That way, if the assessment shows that your employee needs to stop smoking, or to better handle their stress, you have offerings ready to support them.

      Vaccination clinics 

      The benefit to offering onsite vaccinations seems clear — if you want fewer employees to miss work from the flu, make it easy for them to get vaccinated. 

      Again, onsite and during working hours can be critical for ensuring high levels of participation. Check with your local health department to see if they can offer a clinic at your worksite. 

      A BONUS: If you truly want to protect your employees and reap the benefit of fewer unplanned absences, make it easy for their families to be vaccinated as well. A few evening or weekend sessions to extend the service to spouses and children can be a service to the whole community.

      Exercise programs and activities

      Offering time and space to exercise while at work might be the gold standard in wellness programs. 

      Making it simple for your staff to come early, stay after, or catch a quick workout during the day shows your commitment to their health in a big way. But an onsite gym simply isn’t feasible for many companies, and is of little to no benefit to your employees working remotely. 

      Discounted memberships to a wellness center and/or fitness classes might be a better option for many companies, particularly in conjunction with the flex time to use it. In addition, offering reimbursement or negotiated prices on popular fitness apps, wearables, and home workout equipment can encourage employees to get moving. 

      LOW-COST OPTION: Encourage employee-led programs like walking or biking clubs, competitions to tally the most miles in a month, or training groups that participate in one or two events every year. Introduce the concept of  “walking meetings” for those who are able and enlist company leaders to help set the tone by starting meetings with a quick stretch or giving 10 minutes back at the end of an hour so that people can "take a movement break." Like weight-loss activities, be careful not to stress or shame those who don’t to or don’t feel able to participate. 

      Mental health services

      Given the widespread stress and rampant burnout that many employees face, providing access to mental health services and support for mental fitness might be the most critical wellness service you can add to your portfolio. 

      Whether through a call-in service, free/inexpensive therapy, or even an app like Headspace, the benefits to supporting employees' mental health could be far-reaching. ON THE DOWN LOW: Confidentiality is critical when it comes to mental health services, so make sure employees know that, as their employer, you have no access to any information about their therapy, even if it is provided by the company.

      BETTER: Expand the conversation around mental health and well-being to to incorporate proactive support for the majority of your employees who aren't in crisis but aren't at their best. EVEN BETTER: Offer integrated support to help them build resilience and develop other core skills needed for strengthening mental fitness and maintaining well-being over the long haul.


      Coaches can provide flexible and personalized support to improve performance, physical and mental health, well-being, and overall wellness for your employees. Some organizations provide trainers, nutritionists, or sleep experts to provide targeted coaching. Many employees benefit from a more holistic approach that sees them as a whole person. 

      By addressing such issues as conflict, stress, sleep hygiene, self advocacy, and mental and emotional habits, a coach can help the employee develop healthier, more productive behaviors and tools to use in the future. A great coaching relationship can be an excellent means to helping your employees show up as healthy and grounded at work. 

      BONUS: Coaching relationships often focus on goals and work-specific issues (getting promoted, managing up, negotiating relationships). So these health benefits are really the side effects of the progress they’re making on job skills. Bonus!

      Onsite yoga 

      Yoga as a company-sponsored health activity is singled out for a number of reasons. 

      First, pragmatically, the only thing the company must provide is an instructor and a quiet, empty space. 

      Second, a good yoga instructor can create classes that are accessible to persons at multiple wellness levels, to include chair yoga for those who aren’t comfortable lying on the floor. 

      Third, a gentle yoga class can be done in comfortable work attire, so changing rooms aren’t required. 

      And fourth, the benefits to yoga classes are both physical and mental. Offering onsite yoga is a win-win on so many levels. 

      PASS OUT THE GOODIES: You can make participating in yoga classes even more fun by purchasing mats, water bottles, and other yoga props for your participants. Seeing other people with their stylish water bottle could have a snowball effect on attendance.

      “Down time” spaces 

      Providing space where your employees can have a few quiet minutes is becoming increasingly popular, particularly for those who work in large, open (read: loud) offices. 

      Whether you want to make these spaces “nap friendly” is up to you, but providing a quiet room where someone can read, write, or plan could be valuable for your company and your employees in a multitude of ways. 

      NEW MOM OPTIONS: Make sure you also have spaces where they can feed and change a baby that might have come to work with them, or pump milk for a baby that is at home. Make sure that they can schedule time in the room on a consistent basis, and that there is a lock on the door for privacy.

      Easy options for healthy food 

      When it comes to healthy food, there are several steps you can take to ensure that it’s easy for your employees to make good choices. 

      The first, and perhaps most important, is that you provide adequately equipped food prep space. Are there conveniently placed kitchens in your office, with sinks, refrigerators, and microwaves that are clean and in good working order? 

      Do you provide basic utensils, salt and pepper, and regular trash pickup? If you’d like to make it even easier for your employees to make healthy choices, consider having snacks like nuts, yogurt, and fresh fruit readily available. Rather than a soda machine, how about offering access to chilled, purified water via a water bottle filling station? And on days when you cater in meals, make sure that there are healthy options that meet a variety of dietary needs (vegetarian, halal, and so on). 

      VEND IT: Your company simply might not be able to afford to provide no-cost food for its employees. In such instances, you could install a refrigerated vending machine, so that healthier options like yogurt and fresh fruit can be purchased. Other organizations have found that ordering in fresh fruit boxes or encouraging teams to stock their own healthy snacks can be a good solution. If it’s as easy to get an apple as a candy bar, more people will make that choice!


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      7 tips to achieve workplace wellness

      If you want to achieve workplace wellness for your company, here are seven ways to ensure that it goes off without a hitch. 

      1. You. Must. Participate. 

      Perhaps the most important step you can take to ensure that your workplace wellness program is successful is to participate in it yourself. 

      Take a yoga class, get your flu shot, schedule a walking meeting. If employees notice (and they will!) that upper management isn’t joining in, they are likely to assume that either the offerings are just fluff, or that you tacitly don’t want people to “waste their time” with wellness offerings. 

      2. Avoid a sense of “quid pro quo” 

      Your wellness programs should not have any appearance of “strings attached.” In other words, you aren’t offering stress reduction seminars so that your employees can’t complain about a stressful work environment. 

      And getting a flu shot on the company’s time doesn’t mean that you can’t take any sick leave that winter. Even if you are providing the food, employees should still take their lunch break, rather than working through lunch. 

      Your programming is a way of supporting the employee's health and well-being as a whole person, and needs to be perceived as such.

      3. Offer programs regularly, not just a “special occasion” 

      Of course you can and should offer special classes, events, meals, and so on. But a commitment to wellness needs to be an everyday activity, so your offerings can become a part of the fabric of your workplace. 

      4. Avoid a sense of judgment about participation

      Offerings that target unhealthy behaviors — smoking, overeating, sedentary lifestyle — need to be handled with particular sensitivity. 

      You as a company are offering a beneficial service to your employees, but participation should be entirely voluntary, and no one should feel pressured or guilty regarding their decision to participate (or not).

      5. Offer activities as part of the work day

      While it can be fun to gather with co-workers and go to a ball game or take a cooking class, not everyone is available for activities that fall outside the typical workday (parents of small children, other caretaking, and so on). 

      To ensure that your employees can easily participate, schedule as many of your wellness activities as possible during the work day.

      6. Provide opportunities at ALL levels of the company 

      Let’s be plain: everyone — from your executives to your janitorial staff — should be welcome to participate in whatever programming you offer. 

      Stress management, healthy eating, and physical activity are important to everyone, regardless of employment status or job title.

      7. Gather input throughout the program 

      Buy-in is much more likely if your staff feel like they were included in the planning, so conducting an interest survey, establishing a wellness committee, and gathering regular feedback will go a long way to ensuring program success. 

      The key here is not just gathering the information, but using it to inform your offerings, and to make adjustments as needed. If no one likes your snack offerings, cut them out. If people would like additional times for yoga or weight loss coaching, invest your resources here. 

      Did you know growth fuels wellness and performance?


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      In Conclusion

      Regardless of the size, complexity, and industry, your company can (and should) be offering some sort of wellness support for its employees. 

      Showing your care and investment in the whole person, not just the worker, can only have positive benefits in the long run.

      Published February 26, 2021

      Becky Eason

      BetterUp Fellow Coach, ACC PhD

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