A workplace wellness program encourages healthier lifestyles and can improve your employees’ health. Learn how small employers can get a program started.
A meaningful workplace wellness program supports employees in making wise choices that maximize health and minimize illness and disease. It also is a way to increase morale, attendance and the productiveness of your employees.
A great way to start with the idea of a workplace wellness program is to ask yourself: “What kinds of things should we do?” In order to answer this question, it is important to understand your workplace environment.
- Survey your workplace setting: Look for things in and outside the office that can be utilized. Do you have walking areas that are easy to navigate? Do you already have some wellness polices in place?
- Find out what your employees are interested in. Learning about their interests and capabilities will help you to engage your employees and make the program a success. Are they allergic to some foods? Are they able to play a sport? Are they competitive?
- Determine programs that you have the resources to do well. Do you have the time to set up a vaccination station? Do you have the facilities for a yoga class?
- Write up a Health Risk Appraisal (HRA), a questionnaire that reviews personal lifestyle choices, such as smoking or seat belt usage. It can help with identifying specific programs your workforce might be interested in.
- Establish a Wellness Committee. Management should be enlisted to help come up with ideas and execute your plans.
—Designing your program—
Implementing an entirely new system at the workplace might be time consuming and challenging so it is OK to start with small changes that do not cost anything. Trying out just one small component of a wellness program is a lot more manageable. It can act as a trial run as well as give you the chance to see how your employees respond. Here are five themes a workplace wellness program can be centered around:
- Promote preventive care. This could be as simple as encouraging hand washing to funding flu vaccinations. When your employees avoid contact with germs, they lessen their chances of getting sick and therefore lessen their chances of missing work. On-site or nearby health clinics give employees the opportunity to schedule office visits for routine care without taking time off.
- Encourage exercise. Exercising increases blood flow and over time gives you energy. This can lead to a more energetic and productive workforce. Making structural changes to your office is a possible solution, while simply promoting a lunch break walking club is another way to advocate good health.
- Emphasize education. Often times, people need encouragement to help them stay focused. A lunch or break-time seminar helps employees learn more about healthy habits. Finding a quick video or speakers on healthier living may be an option. Health can start at the workplace, but should continue at home.
- Eating right. Like exercise, eating right gives you energy, prevents getting sick and therefore leads to more productivity at work. Stocking the break room with fresh fruit and replacing sodas with juice or water are basic solutions. This hones in on their hunger and gives your employees the burst of energy they were looking for while meeting additional nutritional needs.
- Be mindful of behaviors. Stress and depression affect the environment and productivity in the workplace. However, these may be only symptoms of a greater problem. Consider offering or directing employees to assistance programs for their financial troubles, excess stress or depression symptoms, while also sharing simple steps to help cope. Taking small breaks, taking walks, chatting with a co-worker or just stepping outside for a breath of fresh air reduce stress and promote a healthier workplace.
Effective wellness programs can be as simple as bringing baskets of fresh fruit into break rooms to encourage better eating. They can be as extensive as building fitness facilities onsite or paying for obesity treatments. For a smaller employer, a wellness program could include any combination of the following:
- Health Risk Assessment (HRA) This is a survey that can help gauge the needs of employees, based on existing habits.
- Smoking cessation – health insurance may offer coverage of certain prescriptions or over the counter nicotine replacement medication. The American Cancer Society also offers free support, either through local chapter meetings or a toll free support line.
- Subsidized gym membership.
- Health fair – An organization can come into the work place and share materials on the importance of health screening and to remind employees to make appointments.
- Healthy diet class.
- Yoga and stress reduction class.
- Offer a snack room or vending machine with healthier options. For example, supply baked chips or oatmeal bars over fried chips or a basket of fruit instead of a bowl full of candy.
- Offering a water cooler instead of a soda machine.
- Subsidizing healthy options in vending machine, e.g.: $1 for a cookie, but only 25 cents for an apple.
- Start a Walking Club or a competition before or after work.
- Pedometer challenge with a goal of 10,000 steps a day.
- Encourage bicycle commuting. Provide a convenient place to store bikes at work and highlight routes to travel.
- Take the stairs. Encourage employees to take the stairs, as opposed to the office elevator. It is important to remember stairs should be cleared at all times, because they could become a fire hazard. To make the stairs more attractive, decorate the stairwell.
- Healthy food choices for meetings and within the break room.
—When to get started?—
A meaningful program should be current to keep employees interested. One way to do this is to have a seasonal theme or update the program every other month. There is a great variety of opportunities to change how your organization is run. For example:
- In the winter months, it is a good idea to focus on chronic diseases and general wellness. Reminding employees about flu vaccinations, washing hands and trying to stay active outdoors helps prevent the risk of an infection.
- During the summer months, discuss the importance of proper hydration (with water, not soda), using sunscreen outdoors and visiting a local farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables.
—How else can I gauge the benefits of Wellness Programs?—
Depending on your goals, demonstrating a financial return for a Wellness Program can be a challenge. The Return on Investment (ROI) is the typical financial measure and is described comparing savings to spending. For some employers this means the difference between medical expenses not incurred and productivity compared to the total costs of the wellness program. An employer can estimate the ROI of a Wellness Program by using Well Step’s ROI Calculator. While many organizations have measured positive results, it is important to understand what a realistic return should be.
A recent study published by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that employers who actually measured their workplace wellness efforts showed a three to one return on their investment. According to a 2002 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services, worksites and offices with a physical activity program reduced their healthcare costs by 20-50 percent, reduced short-term sick leave by six to 32 percent and increased productivity by two to 52 percent.
One of the most visible ways to gauge a business’s success in wellness is in the lowering of health care premiums each year. For a small business employer, calculating this part of ROI can be hard because the employer may not be able to negotiate their health insurance premiums nor receive data from their insurer carrier. Thus employers need to find more creative ways in determining if their programs are successful.
However, it is still possible to evaluate the success of your program. Ask yourself:
- Are sick employees coming into work less or calling out less?
- Does the workplace environment seem more productive?
- Are employees happier to come to work or seem less stressed at work?
- Is there a stronger sense of community in the workplace?
- Answering these questions will help gauge the success of your programs and whether or not more programs should be.
While you cannot look at your employees’ medical records, checking how many sick days they are taking might be a good start. However, if sick days are not decreasing around the office, it might be best to see who is actually participating in the workplace wellness program. If they are happy with the program itself, that is a good indicator that the program is headed in the right direction.
—How did it go?—
Once you have implemented your program, survey your workplace again. Find out if the employees enjoyed your program. Ask if they saw the value and importance of your goals. For information sessions, ask if the sessions were entertaining but informative. For workplace environment changes (like offering fresh fruit in your break room or afternoon walks), ask if they are participating in the program and if they have found it useful. Often it is more effective to offer incentives to employees who participate. Continue to find out what your employees are interested in and include some of their ideas in what you are doing.
It is important to lead by example. Senior employees and management should be included in the discussion on how programs should be run. This will allow for a greater amount of participation and offer a way of coming up with more creative ideas. Competitions also offer a boost, as it makes the employees accountable to each other. Internal support is key to a successful program.
—Legal compliance issues—
It is wise for an employer to make the new program voluntary, especially if the smaller employer is short on time and resources. Thus, those employees who do not participate cannot be penalized. These programs should also be free or at low cost to employees and open to everyone. These programs should only focus on the positive aspect of good health, and, permission is needed by employees to discuss their health.
Your programs will have to follow federal, state and local laws. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) are important federal laws that cover employer wellness programs and their benefits plans. For example, an incentive for employees to take part in the program is through rewards. Gift certificates or cash rewards could be an optional incentive, but could also be considered taxable income.
HIPAA regulations, which were codified in the Affordable Care Act, groups wellness programs into two categories. Participatory wellness programs are available to all and rewards are not related to health status. Health-contingent wellness programs base rewards (premium discounts, lower cost-sharing requirements, etc.) on a participant meeting a health status standard. New rules were proposed in 2012 detailing employers’ flexibility relating to these programs.
Another caveat to a workplace wellness program is when developing an HRA. Based on HIPPA, as well as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), employers with fewer than 50 employees are unable to conduct an HRA. Businesses are either going to have to utilize a third party or simply take a poll of what employees are interested in learning about.
New Jersey wage payment law permits a deduction from an employee’s paycheck for a health club membership when authorized by an employee or collective bargaining agent, provided it is approved by the employer. For more information, read the IRS Fact Sheet.
The Federal law known as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) ensure that these programs do not discriminate against employees based on a variety of factors. For example, if an individual is unable to eat apples, either for religious or allergenic reasons, it is unwise to provide only apples as a healthy option in the break room.
The links below provide additional support to help you and your businesses with ideas, working plans, materials and insight on how to run a successful workplace wellness program.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a unique site that offers training assistance, case studies and resources to help facilitate a Workplace Wellness Program.
The US Chamber of Commerce Small Business Nation has put together a brochure and video on helpful practices for employers.
This site along with provides a variety of easy to read and easily accessible PDF’s that cover tips and strategies from exercising to eating right.
The AHA offers its own study of a workplace wellness program, as it is an important way to combat cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as obesity and diabetes. It articulates AHA’s position on the use of financial incentives within employer-based health insurance.
—For More Information—
If you need additional information, please contact Chrissy Buteas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-858-9516.
Updated: November 8, 2016
This information should not be construed as constituting specific legal advice. It is intended to provide general information about this subject and general compliance strategies. For specific legal advice, NJBIA strongly recommends members consult with their attorneys.