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Nine steps to establishing a wellness program

Worksite wellness programs are more popular than ever, and are being implemented by increasing numbers of small- to medium-sized businesses. When done correctly, they give employees incentives, social support, and real tools for adopting and maintaining healthier behaviors. With many still trying to sustain New Year’s Resolutions to eat better or be more active, now’s a great time to look into planning a program for your workplace – here are nine key steps:

Step 1: Conduct assessments

Gathering information on the health of the workforce – and the organization’s willingness to make improvements based on these findings – is crucial to developing a worksite wellness program. This can be done by distributing employee surveys to evaluate wellness interests and common goals; conducting a Health Risk Assessment (HRA) in which healthcare professionals screen employees for biometric data such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and BMI which can later be reviewed in aggregate; and appraising health care costs to determine which health conditions are the biggest contributors to the total.

Step 2: Obtain management support

As with any initiative, management buy-in is essential for funding purposes and for approving policies and processes related to the program. Addressing the three questions below may help in obtaining the required support:

  1. What are the organization’s short- and long-term strategic priorities? Employers should show how wellness programs support these strategic objectives.
  2. What benefits can be expected from the wellness initiative, and what is the potential value of wellness promotion to the organization?
  3. What are the leadership styles, pressures, strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s senior-level executives?

These answers can help determine how best to build a case for instituting a wellness program at your workplace.

Step 3: Establish a wellness committee

An internal, employee-driven committee to help build and sustain a wellness culture in the organization is critical. The responsibilities of the committee might include the following:

Employers should solicit committee members by invitation or ask for volunteers, ensuring there is good representation from across echelons of organizational structure and varied departments.

Step 4: Develop goals and objectives

Using the information gathered from the workforce assessment, employers can establish goals and objectives for the program. For many organizations, a key goal is to improve workers’ health and thereby reduce health care costs; other goals may include reducing absenteeism, boosting worker productivity, and increasing retention. Just make sure your objectives are clear, measurable, and phrased in a way that makes it easy to determine their efficacy over time.

Step 5: Establish a budget

When creating a wellness budget, organizations should account for screening vendor/other provider fees; incentives for participation; promotional materials; pedometers and/or fitness trackers; etc., but you may also want to consider the following steps to look for non-obvious funding resources:

  1. Conduct surveys to determine if employees would be willing to pay for a one-time or recurring onsite program pertaining to exercise and/or relaxation, such as yoga or massage
  2. Partner with the company’s health insurance carrier(s) to determine wellness components they might offer – often these program costs are already included in the health insurance premiums
  3. Research the option of participating in clinical studies from universities or hospitals studying the impact of workplace wellness programs
  4. Research free community resources or programs to supplement the wellness program
  5. Consider implementing low- or no-cost internal activities, such as a lunch walking group

Step 6: Design wellness program components

Employers have great latitude in designing the wellness program; there is not one standard program, as each will vary based on organizational needs and resources. It may range from a very simple program to an elaborate multi-prong program. Examples of components to address are vast, but could include stress reduction, weight loss, nutrition education, smoking cessation, alcohol management, sleep patterns, mental health… refer to the data gathered in earlier steps on risk behaviors and the needs and interests of employees to hone your program’s focus areas.

Step 7: Select wellness program incentives/rewards

The argument for rewarding employees for participating in a wellness program pulls from the basic principles of behavioral psychology: people are driven to act by the positive consequences they expect from their actions. Building a rewards system into a wellness program is a great motivator. Rewards can take many forms, including points that can be exchanged for goods, gifts celebrating accomplishments, or monetary awards. Over time, the motivation for rewards shifts from an external incentive to intrinsic reinforcement. Note, however, that federal and state regulations may limit incentives, so employers should stay up-to-date on applicable compliance obligations.

Step 8: Communicate the wellness plan

The next step is to write and communicate the organization’s wellness policy. This policy statement should include the organization’s intent, level of involvement, and rewards/incentives system. It is helpful to use communication to create a social culture where being healthy is valued. This can be done in many ways, using well-established techniques such as:

Step 9: Evaluate the success of the program

As with any investment or project, evaluating the effectiveness of the wellness program is important in sustaining management and employee support and in revising or implementing new programs. Employers should have established metrics and baselines from the very beginning of any wellness initiative, which will vary depending on program structure. For example, employers may measure participation rates, program completion rates, reduction in health care costs, and percentage of employees who stopped smoking or lost weight. Employers may also want to measure the return on investment (ROI) – these articles from SHRM provide guidance on how to do so.

Sources: the Transamerica Center for Health Studies’ ‘Finding Fit’ 2018 Employer Guide and SHRM’s ‘How to Establish and Design a Wellness Program’ (both excerpted and paraphrased).