New thoughts on workplace wellness

December 13, 2021 - 27 min read

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What is workplace wellness?

The relationship between stress and productivity

Do employee wellness programs work?

Examples of employee health and wellness programs

4 barriers for workplace wellness programs

7 tips to achieve workplace wellness

Workplace wellness, or corporate wellness, isn’t a new concept.

For decades, companies have offered food and wellness assessments as part of their health insurance plans. Informal health and well-being challenges, such as counting monthly steps, have been common as well.

Such programming tended to be about:

  • Minimizing health insurance costs 
  • Mitigating chronic disease 
  • Strengthening workplace culture 
  • Increasing employee engagement

However, companies that want to compete for in-demand skills have been stepping up their corporate wellness programs. 

We are seeing more research on the damaging pressures of modern life. So, companies are also realizing the need to broaden their approach to wellness to keep their current employees healthy.

Let’s take a look at different aspects of worksite wellness programs. We’ll discuss large initiatives like employee healthcare spending and exercise classes. We’ll also examine small changes like water bottles and walking meetings.

What is workplace wellness?

There are several reasons why businesses should want to engage with the concept of workplace wellness.

To begin with, companies offering wellness perks stay competitive in the fight for top employees. Workplace wellness benefits give them an edge over those offering just financial incentives.

If your rival companies have onsite vaccination clinics and mason jars of granola in the break room, you may feel compelled to top them. 

But workplace wellness is more than just about fancy yoga rooms and gym reimbursements. It’s also about creating a workplace culture that favors employee well-being. This makes employees feel valued, appreciated, and accepted at a company. They also need to feel psychologically safe

Workplace wellness helps employees be:

Heres a list of workplace wellness programs that have been popular over time throughout the professional world.

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Companies that want to support their people to be productive and engaged aim to create a culture of care and respect. Progressive companies have increasingly understood that has to encompass the whole person. Workplace wellness offerings are one step in that direction.

The relationship between stress and productivity

You’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. Research shows that sometimes stress can be helpful.

Researchers have created a performance curve. 

This curve shows how your best work is likely to come when you are just outside your comfort zone. However, it comes before you begin feeling too much strain from your responsibilities. 

This concept of a performance curve shows that the relationship between stress and productivity is complex. We’re not as effective without stress, but we risk burnout with too much

Keeping this balance in check is exactly where health programs can step in.

Do employee wellness programs work?

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs. 

The research on program effectiveness is relatively new, and studies are using only short-term data thus far. 

However, participants in wellness programs report increased physical activity and active weight management

In short, you need to invest in workplace wellness for the long term if you expect to help employees and make a measurable difference in their lives.

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Examples of employee health and wellness programs

Tech companies are famous for offering the likes of:

  • Free meals 
  • Bicycles to ride from building to building 
  • Relaxation rooms
  • Onsite or virtual fitness opportunities

The idea is that, by committing to workplace health promotion, 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. But remember, many of the employees who use workplace wellness programs follow the latest trends in the wellness industry.

With this said, some of the most effective ways you can support employees’ health and wellness may cost very little to implement. 

More and more team members are moving into remote work. So, organizations need to continue evolving how they think about workplace wellness to match this change.

Here’s 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 a program to influence employee health behaviors. Products, services, and workforce needs continue to evolve. So, new programs, and improved variations on old ones, are constantly emerging.

1. Stress reduction tools

Though some stress is good, as a rule of thumb, it’s something people try to minimize. 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 can be an effective way to start interacting with your employees about their health and wellness. It can also have a positive impact on employees’ mental health.

But be realistic about the gap between the current work environment and the culture of care you envision. 

Simply sending messages about wellness and stress reduction is not usually effective. Without implementing any tangible changes to the system, it might be worse than doing nothing.

Better option: Find ways to get your employees to engage with messages about health behaviors. Set up a stress reduction chatroom on Slack, or provide space over lunch to talk about the week’s wellness topic. The message will have considerably more influence if your employees are talking and thinking about it. 

Even better option: Provide space for employee-led sessions so that employees can try out new practices. Here, they can experiment with practices like deep breathing, meditation, and journaling.

2. Healthy eating programs

Since we eat as many as 1/3 of our meals while on the job, sponsoring a healthy eating program could be a great fit for your work community.

Your company’s insurance program might have a program that you could offer. Or, you can team up with a local wellness center to offer a tailored program. 

Make sure that, in promoting your healthy eating options, you don’t just focus on weight loss, but on improving your employees’ health and nutrition. 

For example, focus on learning to cook new meals or incorporating healthier alternatives into people’s diets — don’t encourage employees to just track numbers on a scale.

The point of these programs shouldn’t be weight loss. 

Better option: Broaden the scope to incorporate:

  • Healthy eating 
  • Fueling for energy, performance, and concentration
  • Cooking and food prep hacks
  • A personalized health plan for each employee
  • Health education

Even better option: 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. 

Create a guide to the technology and employee communities that can augment and support employees’ efforts to improve their nutrition and adapt a new, healthier way of eating long-term. This is especially powerful if they are offered at a discount to employees.

It’s also important to keep in mind that healthy eating and weight loss programs can be triggering for those who are currently or have previously experienced an eating disorder or symptoms of disordered eating

Providing resources for this population is also part of employee wellness. If you or someone you know is struggling, they can chat, call, or text The National Eating Disorders Association for help and support.

3. 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. It can also reduce their risk of health conditions such as heart disease.

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 quitline and even nicotine replacement products. 

4. Health risk assessments/screenings

Annual physicals are included in many health insurance policies. However, only about 1 in 5 people in the U.S. 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 
  • Cholesterol levels

All of these can be indicators of health issues that should be addressed immediately. 

Offer onsite assessments and opportunities to conduct basic screenings at the office and during work time. Regular screening can help to detect underlying health problems. It could encourage those who do not regularly get a physical to be more aware of these basic health markers.

These assessments will be most effective when offered in conjunction with other offerings.

For example, if the assessment shows that your employee needs to stop smoking, you have offerings ready to support them.

5. Vaccination clinics 

The benefit of offering onsite vaccinations seems clear. If you want fewer employees to miss work from the flu and other illnesses, make it easy for them to get vaccinated.

Again, providing these 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.

Want to protect your employees and reap the benefits 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.

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, it’s possible that those who receive the vaccine might need booster shots in the coming months and years. Research to see if this is something that can be easily offered at your office. If not, provide information to your employees on where they can receive boosters for the vaccine. 

6. 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 it’s of little to no benefit to your employees working remotely.

Discounted memberships to a wellness center or fitness classes might be a better option for many companies.

In addition, you can offer reimbursement or negotiated prices on:

This 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 
  • Training groups that participate in one or two events every year

Introduce the concept of “walking meetings” when possible. 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 healthy eating, be careful not to stress or shame those who don’t want to, don’t feel like it, or are unable to participate. 

7. Mental fitness services

Today, many employees face stress, worry, and rampant burnout. So, providing access to mental health services might be the most critical wellness service you can add to your portfolio. 

Confidentiality is critical when it comes to employee mental health and well-being services. Make sure they know that, as their employer, you don’t have access to information about their therapy or coaching sessions.

Better option: Expand the conversation around mental health and well-being. Incorporate proactive support for the majority of your employees who aren't in crisis but also aren't at their best.

Even better option: 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 term. This is the type of personalized support for mental fitness provided by BetterUp Care™

8. Coaching 

Coaches can provide flexible and personalized support to improve:

  • Performance 
  • Physical and mental health 
  • Well-being
  • Overall wellness for your employees 

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Some organizations provide trainers, nutritionists, or sleep experts to provide targeted health coaching. Many employees benefit from a more holistic approach that sees them as a whole person.

A coach can help your employees develop healthier, more productive behaviors and tools to use in the future.

They'll address issues such as:

A great coaching relationship can be an excellent way to help your employees show up healthy and grounded at work. 

Coaching encompasses all areas of your life. While coaching relationships can focus on professional goals and work-specific issues, they can also help you grow and improve outside of work. 

Some work-related areas you may choose to focus on include things like getting promoted, managing up, and negotiating workplace relationships. 

But, you can also work towards personal goals, like achieving a better work-life balance or improving your personal relationships. Often, improving your home life will help you improve at work as well. Bonus!

9. 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 all people at multiple wellness levels. For example, they might include chair yoga for those who aren’t comfortable (or able) to lie on the floor. 

Third, employees can do gentle yoga classes in comfortable work attire, so changing rooms aren’t required. 

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

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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 bottles could have a snowball effect on attendance.

10. “Downtime” spaces 

Providing a space where your employees can have a few quiet minutes is becoming increasingly popular. This is particularly important 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 reflect could be valuable to your company and your employees in a multitude of ways. 

11. Spaces for new parents

Make sure you also have spaces where new parents 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.

12. 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 an adequately equipped food prep space. Are there conveniently placed kitchens in your office with equipment that is 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 readily available like:

  • Nuts
  • Yogurt 
  • Fresh fruit

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 meals, make sure that there are healthy options that meet a variety of dietary needs (vegetarian, halal, kosher, and so on). 

All of this makes it easier for each employee to engage in healthy behavior and encourages employees to take their health seriously. 

If your company simply might not be able to afford to provide no-cost food for its employees, consider installing a refrigerated vending machine. This will mean that employees can purchase healthier options like yogurt and fresh fruit.

Some organizations order in fresh fruit boxes or encourage teams to stock their own healthy snacks. If it’s as easy to get an apple as a candy bar, many people will make a healthier choice.

4 barriers for workplace wellness programs

If you’re excited to launch your employee wellness program, it’s important to be aware of potential pitfalls. 

This will help you set up your program in a way that benefits both your employees and the organization. Here are four of the most common barriers you might face.

1. Lack of commitment from upper management

Leaders may be reluctant to invest in employee wellness initiatives if they can’t see the clear benefits or return on investment (ROI). 

Convince the higher-ups it’s worth their while. Provide case studies of companies that have improved their performance through wellness initiatives.

2. Unwillingness to change

Making significant lifestyle changes is not easy. It requires motivation and a willingness to make an effort. It also involves being prepared to fail and getting yourself back on track.

Employees may struggle to commit to doing the work and making the necessary changes. Often, offering a workplace wellness program isn’t enough on its own. You may need to encourage employees to participate by providing incentives.

3. Confidentiality fears

Many employees are concerned about the confidentiality of corporate wellness programs. They may be afraid of repercussions.

Reassure your team members that confidential information will not be shared with the company. Make sure they know that the information they provide won’t be used against them.

4. Lack of substance

Many existing corporate wellness programs are simply a gesture and lack the depth and substance needed to make a real impact. 

Don't start a wellness initiative because your competitors are doing it. Instead, strive to create a program that responds to your employees’ real needs.

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. 

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1. You. Must. Participate. 

One of the most important steps 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 the offerings are just fluff. Or they’ll assume 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.” For example, offering stress reduction seminars doesn’t mean your employees can’t complain if they think the work environment is stressful.

And getting a flu shot on the company’s time doesn’t mean that you can’t take any sick days that winter. Even if you are providing the food, employees should still take lunch breaks 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 on “special occasions” 

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 need to be handled with particular sensitivity. This could include behaviors like smoking, overeating, and a sedentary lifestyle.

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

5. Offer activities as part of the workday

While it can be fun to gather with colleagues and go to a ball game or take a cooking class, not everyone is available for activities that fall outside the typical workday. 

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

6. Provide opportunities at ALL levels of the company 

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

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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 feels like they were included in the planning. You can take certain steps to help them feel included, such as:

These will go a long way to ensuring program success.

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

Workplace wellness programs really can work

Regardless of the size, complexity, and industry, your company can offer some sort of wellness support for its employees. And it should.

Showing your care and investment in the whole person, not just the employee, can only have positive benefits in the long run, such as:

  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Lower healthcare cost per employee from reduced medical spending
  • Positive health outcomes, such as a reduced risk of stroke
  • Greater productivity and employee satisfaction 

Implementing a workplace wellness program goes a long way to ensuring healthy employees and a healthy workplace.

If you’re interested in learning about other ways your company can encourage employees to develop a healthy lifestyle, then you should check out BetterUp Care. It’s a comprehensive solution that we believe should be a part of every wellness initiative.

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Published December 13, 2021

Becky Eason

BetterUp Fellow Coach, ACC PhD

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