The Loop

How to Engage Employees in Wellness

Filed under: Benefits

There are two key components to a successful employer Wellness program: Return on investment (ROI) and worker engagement. You can't have the first without the second. However, you can have engagement without being too concerned with ROI.

Wellness programs may have started as a way for employers to reduce healthcare expenditures, but they have morphed into a part of many company cultures. Employers with truly successful programs have high participation levels. It's important to remember that wellness goals are long-term. After all, it takes time to lose weight – especially if it's to be done correctly. Getting smokers to quit can be an agonizing, stop-start-stop again process. Substance abuse recovery is a daily burden.

For people who are inclined to eat healthy and get regular exercise, it's easier to get them engaged. But for workers who have neglected healthy behaviors for years, it is a much more arduous task. And yet, it is the least healthy workers who are most able to contribute to the ROI of a Wellness program and reduce overall healthcare expenditures.

Unlike the mantra from the film Field of Dreams, just because you build a Wellness program does not mean they will come. This initiative must be launched with a full-scale engagement plan, much the way you would launch a new product or service with a marketing and business plan. The more you organize, plan, communicate, track and follow up, the better the chances of achieving benchmark goals.

Matching Product to Target Market
Let's face it, people who don't like to lift weights don't want to go to a gym. Runners may not be interested in yoga. For every person, there is a unique level of interest that may or may not be struck by an employee Wellness program. That's why one of the most important components is diversity. It's not about gender or ethnic diversity, it's about tapping in to what each person wants to do.

For example, if you offer a discount to a popular gym franchise, that's a great perk for employees who like to work out and there is a branch conveniently located to them. However, other workers might live near another gym. Still others may abhor the idea of going to a fitness center.

A Wellness program should cast a wide net. Consider offering a cafeteria style menu wherein employees can apply allotted discount dollars to specific gyms or even swim, tennis or golf club memberships. The following are some ideas for offering employee discounts:

• Multiple fitness centers, in different parts of town
• Pilates, yoga, dance
• Tai chi, martial arts
• Year-round swim centers
• Provide information for local running, biking and hiking clubs
• Employee rate at tennis or golf centers

Encourage Teams
Studies show that one of the aspects of work that appeals to employees is the friends they make. People who have strong friendships at work tend to be more engaged and loyal. A workplace environment that allows, enables and fosters friendships among co-workers has a better chance for making a Wellness program successful.

Some companies do this by promoting teams in their Wellness program. In a more competitive company culture, such as those that feature a large sales force, setting up a competition among separate product or regional sales teams can be effective. Elsewhere, in cultures where collaboration is highly valued, the team factor could be positioned as more of a support group. Some ideas to promote team engagement include:

• Offer team rewards that help them celebrate meeting goals together – like a team dinner
• Offer to make tee shirts featuring team names; permit wearing them on "Tee-shirt Fridays" when everyone – not just those on teams – is encouraged to get out and walk or engage in other activities.
• Encourage teams to be inclusive – continually inviting new co-workers to join
• Colleagues may want to participate on multiple teams
• Provide Apps so that team members can track their results – individually, compared to team members, and even against other teams
• One precaution is to make team members aware of and consent to having co-workers view and monitor their fitness progress.

Again, one of the keys is flexibility. Some teams may be comprised of a department, but you could allow small teams (or pairs) of friends who join together from various departments. And since some people aren't that into sharing their wellness goals, joining a team shouldn't be a requirement to participate. The point is to use whatever means will foster inclusion but allow for maximum flexibility – let workers use program tools and resources to develop their own wellness regime.

Brand Wellness Events/Initiatives
Generate interest and recognition by hosting catchy fitness challenges, such as "10 Pounds in 10 months" or "Six flights of stairs a day". You can even gauge and generate interest by surveying workers to see what types of challenges interest them. The more they are engaged in the creation process, the more likely they are to participate.

Tap Experts
Consider inviting community experts onsite to teach classes several times a week. Mix up fitness genres to appeal to every taste and offer maximum exposure for the most committed. Classes may include yoga, strength training, tai chi or a dance class. Onsite classes provide an excellent opportunity for community businesses to advertise their services, generate interest, and sign-up members right then and there.

Host "lunch and learn" seminars with local speakers on specific topics such as nutritious ideas for school and office lunches, home treatments and exercises for lower back pain, and demonstrate meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Even with the tax ramification, today, about two-thirds of employers that offer a Wellness program use incentives of more than $250 per worker. Most have found that incentives are necessary to make these programs work. Consider health-focused rewards for workers who meet incremental goals. These may include gift cards for sporting goods stores or athletic wear retailers. Other ideas include:

• Subscriptions to healthy food delivery services
• Fitness tracking devices
• Cooking classes
• Gift cards for local healthy restaurants and/or organic grocers

Frequently, employers place too much focus on the return of a monetary investment in a Wellness program and fail to recognize the soft benefits. These include strengthened relationships among co-workers, enhanced energy levels and productivity, loyalty and word-of-mouth recruitment benefits. While tracking money spent against healthcare expenditures is important, a Wellness program should be considered an investment in people, as opposed to a return on the investment. Much like a tuition reimbursement program, measurable results may not be readily obvious.

In fact, when Central Michigan University conducted an ROI review of its Wellness program for its 1,000 faculty and staff, they learned some noteworthy facts. First, the program was credited with reducing participants' overall BMI, blood pressure levels, and medical expenses. Second,
they tracked friendships across campus and found that if a staffer had a friend who was also in the Wellness program, they had a higher participation rate. And finally – perhaps most interestingly – the data revealed that Wellness program participants were more likely to be promoted than were non-participants.

Wellness Culture
While incentives, and in some cases penalties, are currently a key component for Wellness program success, the ultimate goal might be to eventually eliminate monetary incentives. After all, wellness should be a lifestyle choice, and a Wellness program is meant to encourage specific behaviors by providing opportunity, tools, and resources. Just as anyone who ever tried to diet, stop smoking, or engage in a regular exercise regime will confirm, it doesn't work if the individual isn't committed to that choice.

In other words, good health needs to be its own reward. To better engage workers in an employer-sponsored Wellness program, is the ultimate goal.

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