Why Workplace Wellness Programs Aren't One-Size-Fits-All

Haley Bass
America’s health struggle isn’t a new problem, and businesses have been doing their part to find a solution through workplace wellness programs and incentives. But if the program isn’t designed to match the diversity of the office, it’s doomed to fail.

A single approach to wellness usually benefits only a small number of employees, and does very little to impact the underlying issues creating health complications. The US Preventive Services Task Force found that roughly 50% of overweight or obese adults who are referred to a single-approach weight loss program fail to achieve their weight loss goal.

If you want your company to develop a successful wellness program that engages all employees in their health, and provides a hefty return on investment, keep reading to understand why the singular approach doesn’t work, and what you can do to devise an effective program.

Workforce Diversity

Asking a 28-year-old athletic mother and a 55-year-old smoker at risk for heart disease to participate in the same health program doesn’t make sense. Their individual health needs are going to widely differ, and they’ll continue to vary over the years as circumstances and health goals change.

Your workforce is comprised of different cultures, ages, genders, backgrounds, etc. Each employee has unique health risks, goals, and motivations. Identifying these differences and incorporating them into your program is the best way to drive participation.

Create a strategy to identify employee needs. Usually this includes a questionnaire, focus groups, one-on-one employee interviews, or a combination of all three. Preferably, you should collect and analyze health and lifestyle data from employees, through filling out health risk assessment surveys or undergoing biometric screenings.1

Use the information to customize your program, looking at different factors such as fitness, nutrition, education, incentives, etc. Depending on the size of your company, it might be best to create a wellness committee to run the metrics and develop the program.

Logistics and Incentives

New programs, competitions, point systems, etc. can be confusing for employees. If there are multiple logins and sign-ups, an employee who could benefit from a program might be put off by the complicated process. And while point systems can be a great way to offer incentives, if using them requires a lot of reading to understand, an employee might not think it’s worth the time.

One simple method employers have used to increase participation in wellness programs is financial incentives. The Affordable Care Act allows employers to offer financial incentives equal to 30% of the cost of health insurance premiums if employees meet certain health measures. The National Business Group on Health determined that approximately 86% of large employers use financial incentives to encourage healthy lifestyles. However, incentives are more effective as a “carrot” to boost initial participation than as a long-term strategy for healthy behavior changes.

USAA, a San Antonio-based financial services company, has found an effective way to use incentives as a diverse, long-term method for their wellness program. Their tiered incentive program offers employees multiple ways to gain points to put toward an insurance discount, such as using the on-site fitness center, choosing healthier options in the cafeteria, and undergoing biometric testing.

Peter Wald, chief medical officer and director of USAA’s health promotion program, said the point of a tiered incentives system is to reward people who are already healthy, as well as the people who are making efforts toward a healthy lifestyle. Fit employees can earn points for having a low BMI, while overweight ones can work towards a more achievable goal of losing 10% of their body mass.2

Health is Personal

Health is a personal issue. A corporate mandated program isn’t personal.

An employee who receives a company-wide email from an executive they’ve never met is not going to feel obligated or encouraged to participate.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsored a project to determine what makes an effective workplace wellness program by visiting organizations that won awards for their programs. One of the organizations, Dell, has health promotion committees at most of its sites for more personal communication to the 108,000 employees worldwide. They share health information and promote local wellness events. A Dell employee said, “Employees are more apt to open emails from team members and people they know than messages coming from corporate.”2

Another way to customize your wellness program is through personalized wellness coaching. A coach will get to know an employee’s personality, motivation, readiness to change, needs, and preferences to develop a personal health plan. With this set up, employees are more likely to stick to their goals and stay motivated.

Concentra’s health and wellness programs are crafted to encourage personalized healthy lifestyle behaviors. Health specialists determine personal risk factors for each employee through health risk assessments and biometric screenings. Then, they create and monitor personal health goals through coaching and wellness education classes.

Effective Wellness Programs = Higher Return-on-Investment

Most studies attempting to prove the ROI on wellness programs talk about the savings on health care costs. For example, a study published in a 2012 issue of Health Affairs, found that employer health care costs are 15.3% lower for physically active versus inactive employees. Health promotion programs report a 3:1 ROI - $3 in savings to each $1 spent on programs.

However, ROI goes beyond health care costs. Effective wellness programs with high levels of employee participation lead to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, the ability to attract and retain top talent, and the overall feeling among employees that theirs is a good place to work.

NextJump, an e-commerce company, has reduced its turnover rate from 40% to 1% since their wellness program was implemented. Turck’s chief operating officer Rob Diem said that since their health promotion program started, “Our turnover rates are very low, medical costs are down, and employee satisfaction nears 90%.”2

The primary takeaway: Get to know your workforce, diversify and simplify incentives, and personalize health goals to enjoy a workplace wellness program that works.

[1] Maximizing Employee Engagement in Wellness Programs Through Best Practice Wellness Program Design. American Management Association. 
[2] Making Workplace Health Promotion (Wellness) Programs "Work." Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Institute for Health and Productivity Studies.