Written by Kimberly Silva, PhD, Senior R&D Consultant
Organizations worldwide are embracing a culture of care. According to the Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments (2021), upwards of 92% of organizations surveyed in the US and internationally plan to start or expand workplace wellness programs over the next several years. As an advocate of employee well-being, I commend organizations’ commitment to their workforce and appreciate the genuine concern for employee health and happiness. However, creating and maintaining a quality wellness program isn’t easy and, undoubtedly, there will be initiatives that fall flat.
It takes a lot of skill and expertise to establish an effective wellness program. It also takes time, money, and a concerted effort. Fortunately, many organizations have reported great success with wellness programs, including lower turnover rates, healthcare costs, and absenteeism, as well as greater employee engagement, morale, and productivity (e.g., Baicker et al., 2010; RAND Corporation, 2014; Shortlister, 2022).
Unfortunately, there are several reports of failures, too. Scholars like Song and Baicker (2019) say that there is little empirical evidence to support the long-term benefits of wellness programs. And, while subsets of employees report feeling happier and healthier following a new wellness practice, the evidence is not compelling enough to overshadow the fact that 71% of workers say they are routinely tense or stressed throughout the workday (American Psychological Association, 2021).
3 steps to create a successful wellness program
So, before pouring resources into what could be a wellness fad, organizations need a strategy for designing the best wellness program for their people. Here are three principles to follow for creating effective wellness programs.
- Be intentional
To increase the likelihood of success, organizations need to set specific goals before implementing a workplace wellness program. This involves identifying the concerns to be addressed and the desired impact. Start with a comprehensive baseline measure of employee well-being that gets at the root cause of employee concerns. Explore factors that are theoretically and empirically linked to well-being and consider how people cope with adversity.For example, recognizing that employees collectively feel overwhelmed is a good starting point, but it is not enough information to design a suitable wellness program. You need to dig deeper to know why they are feeling overwhelmed, how long they have felt this way, and what they have been doing to cope with their feelings and still be productive.
- Treat the collective
Most workplace wellness programs and their components support self-care rather than collective care. Individualized benefits like gym memberships, meditation app subscriptions, and health screenings can be empowering, but also very isolating. They are hyper-focused on the individual and can make employees feel alone in their struggle. As described by Barton and colleagues (2022), individual-centric programs can be a “subtle form of abandonment in the guise of support.”
Alternatively, build in components that not only reinforce relationships and highlight work culture, but also acknowledge the impact of our personal actions on the well-being of others.
- Integrate complimentary components
Even the most effective workplace wellness programs can have unintended consequences. For example, consider remote work policies. Many employees report feeling happier, more productive, less exhausted, and have greater job satisfaction after switching from in-office to remote work. Others say that remote work leaves them feeling lonely during the day, disconnected from their coworkers, or guilty for poorly maintaining boundaries between work and home life (Charalampous et al., 2019; George et al., 2022).
This example emphasizes the fact that wellness programs need balance. Examine the pros and cons of different offerings, then include components that supplement each other. Keeping with the remote work example, if you are going to offer remote work, also offer benefits that foster virtual collaboration and open channels of communication to strengthen bonds and a sense of inclusion.
Follow the science, not the fad of corporate wellness programs
It takes a thoughtful plan, well-orchestrated rollout, and continuous evaluation to establish a successful workplace wellness program. While many organizations honestly care about employee well-being, their support efforts can fail without proper guidance. As you navigate the complex, albeit important, world of wellness initiatives, keep these principles in mind – be intentional, treat the collective, and integrate complimentary components.
American Psychological Association. (2021). Compounding pressure in the workplace: A report by the American Psychological Association. APA Publishing. https://www.apa.org/pubs/reports/work-well-being/compounding-pressure-2021
Baicker, K., Cutler D., Song, Z. (2010). Workplace wellness programs can generate savings. Health Affairs, 29 (2), 304–311.
Barton, M.A., Kahn, B., Maitlis, S., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2022). Stop Framing Wellness Programs Around Self-Care. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/04/stop-framing-wellness-programs-around-self-care.
Business Group on Health & Fidelity Investments. (2021). 12th Annual Employer-Sponsored Health & Well-being Survey. https://www.businessgrouphealth.org/en/resources/2021-employer-sponsored-health-and-well-being-survey
Charalampous, M., Grant, C. A., Tramontano, C., & Michailidis, E. (2019). Systematically reviewing remote e-workers’ well-being at work: A multidimensional approach. European journal of work and organizational psychology, 28(1), 51-73.
George, T. J., Atwater, L. E., Maneethai, D., & Madera, J. M. (2022). Supporting the productivity and wellbeing of remote workers: Lessons from COVID-19. Organizational Dynamics, 51(2), 100869.
RAND Corporation. (2014). Do Workplace Wellness Programs Save Employers Money? https://www.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/hr-topics/benefits/Documents/RAND_RB9744.pdf
Shortlister. (2022). 62 Employee Wellness Statistics Every Employer Should Know in 2022. https://www.myshortlister.com/insights/employee-wellness-statistics
Song, Z., & Baicker, K. (2019). Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 321(15), 1491–1501.