Creating a Wellness Initiative: 5 Steps

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Wellness programs and initiatives are often on many employers’ agendas. With wellness’ increasing popularity in the workplace and ability to successfully contain health insurance costs, we’ve summarized five important steps to creating an effective wellness program or initiative.

1. Obtain Management Buy-In

One of the most important, but perhaps challenging elements of building an effective wellness program is obtaining management buy-in.  Generally, obtaining management buy-in can be accomplished by making a business case for implementing the program (i.e. has it been effective in other organizations, what research supports the use of such programs, what are the expected gains/losses and budget, etc) and by showing positive results of the program, particularly on the bottom line and in reducing high costs such as health insurance or absenteeism. Your organization may consider running a pilot and measuring the results. Here are a few common metrics you may consider using to evaluate a pilot program or actual wellness program’s effectiveness:

  • Key performance indicators or program objectives or goals (such as reduced risk factors)
  • Health care claims costs
  • Health insurance usage
  • Employee participation or usage
  • Number of days absent as a result of illness or health conditions
  • Employee engagement or satisfaction
  • Number of policy or workplace changes
  • Return on investment (ROI)

2. Target the Right Needs

Wellness programs should be aligned with the right needs of your workforce.  There are three ways you can determine employees’ wellness needs. Health risk assessments, which are commonly conducted by employers, usually provide an aggregate and summary report for employers to determine what their staff’s health needs are and what preventable health risks are evident. Another way you can determine the wellness needs of your employees is by using an anonymous survey that measures employees’ perceived need for certain types of wellness activities or health-related interventions, or via other feedback methods such as interviews or focus groups. A final way your organization can determine the wellness needs of your employees is from observation of work behaviors such as:

  • Do employees appear to have generally healthy lifestyles?
  • Do employees tend to eat nutritiously?
  • Do employees make time to exercise or engage in fitness activities?
  • Are employees frequently ill or absent due to health-related issues?
  • Do employees have chronic diseases or conditions?
  • Do employees tend to smoke?
  • Do employees understand how to be healthy or are they lacking knowledge and education on wellness?
  • Do employees have issues with stress management?

Data provided in these assessments, modes of feedback, and/or observation can yield information that helps your organization develop a wellness program that meets the health risk areas and needs of your workforce and select the appropriate activities that target those needs. Additionally, gathering data related to the barriers to becoming healthier that employees perceive can be helpful as well in designing programs or initiative.

3. Choose Impactful Activities

Once your organization has determined the needs of its workforce, the next step is to choose activities aligned with those needs – as well as your budget for the program. It’s important to note that the issue(s) you select to target should be capable of being changed. Typically employers choose to focus on these areas, and implement both education and formal activities to help address needs:

  • Nutrition
  • Fitness/physical activity
  • Stress management
  • Disease management or prevention
  • Smoking cessation

Activities in these areas can be low-cost, medium-cost, or high-cost. Low-cost activities typically tend to be more “cultural” in nature, in that the organization makes accommodations to its workplace or policies to better enable healthy behaviors – such as allowing flexible schedules, posting motivational or health oriented tips in the office, allowing for breaks to pursue physical activity, offering healthy food alternatives, or implementing in-house staff-run activities (versus those involving an outside consultant, trainer, or vendor) such as walking or running programs. Activities with moderate costs may include providing educational seminars, coordinating activity clubs, providing subsidized discounts on fitness club memberships or classes, or using community facilities. Higher cost activities tend to provide maximal access opportunities and are higher-impact, such as offering massages, having an on-site fitness center or fitness classes, offering health screenings and vaccinations, providing opportunities for coaching with a wellness expert, and offering incentives.

If your organization does not have the internal staff expertise required to implement a wellness program, it will likely need quality vendors. When selecting vendors, consider the product or service quality and delivery, professionals’ training/education/experience, and the product or service value for the cost incurred.

4. Generate Employee Motivation and Participation

Another crucial component of an effective wellness program is significant employee participation. After all, employees need to actually use the program in order to generate results. If health and wellness aren’t necessarily core aspects of your culture, solid participation and employee motivation may be difficult to attain. Nonetheless, many organizations provide incentives that are attractive to employees and make participation seem worthwhile. Such incentives most commonly include discounts on health insurance premiums as well as cash and gift cards. Time off to pursue wellness opportunities is also a valuable incentive.

Other ways to increase participation is to keep in mind the common barriers that prevent employees from participating in wellness programs such as time, access, cost, and complexity. Offering programs before or after work may lead to less participation than programs occurring during work time or the lunch hour. Similarly, free and simple programs are best. While some more expensive programs may require cost-sharing between an employee and the organization and can facilitate greater commitment to the initiative, it’s important for this to not be too costly that it would be a significant barrier to participation. Access is another potential obstacle to participation; however, programs offered on-site and at convenient times and locations can help reduce access issues.

5. Stay Compliant

Compliance is an on-going hurdle employers face when creating and implementing wellness programs. Wellness programs need to be compliant with laws including ADA, HIPPA, GINA, and Title VII. In addition, there are limits placed on financial awards offered to employees who meet health-related goals. The health care reform bill has impact on wellness plan design, as well.

While legal and policy issues are outside the scope of this article, additional information on these topics can be obtained through ERC’s HR Help Desk (more information below).

View ERC's Wellness Practices Survey Results

This report summarizes the results of ERC’s survey of organizations in Northeast Ohio on practices related to health care and wellness.

View the Results