Building a Culture of Health at Your Company

Developing a workplace wellness program does more than save a little money on insurance premiums

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Not so long ago, workplace-based wellness programs were the hot new thing in holding down health care costs for employers. And while they may receive less attention today, they haven’t gone away.

Instead, their focus is broadening, says Julie Stich, an associate vice president at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans based in Brookfield, Wisconsin. And some employers are broadening their perspective on how to value the benefits wellness programs provide.

“There has been on and off over the years a focus on whether there is a decent return on investment” from wellness programs, Stich says. Some employers view that as the sole yardstick for measuring their worth and insist that programs should return in cost-savings three times what they cost to put in place.

That can be hard to demonstrate, though. It takes as long as three to five years for programs to really establish themselves, and in the meantime, employers’ insurance plans may change due to shifts in the insurance marketplace, making the connection even murkier.

But increasingly, Stich says, employers are viewing the benefits of wellness programs as part of a company’s overall culture and whether employees feel positive about their workplace.

Value on Investment

Instead of “return on investment,” employers are beginning to measure the benefit of such programs by considering “value on investment,” or VOI, Stich says.

It may be more difficult to directly prove wellness programs reduce turnover or boost productivity, but she says they do appear to be connected at least indirectly.

“We see that having a strong wellness program and a culture of wellness at your organization can lead to better outcomes in some of these areas, and not only in health care costs,” Stich says.

In fact, an International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey from 2017, the most recent one available, finds that of employers providing wellness programs, 75 percent say they do so primarily to promote employee health and well-being. Only 25 percent say their primary goal was to control or reduce health-related costs.

The same survey tracked the kinds of wellness programs employers provide. Free or discounted flu shots led the list, with 77 percent of employers providing that benefit, the survey found. Other wellness benefits, and the percentage of employers in the survey that provide them, included:

  • Chiropractic services coverage – 62 percent
  • Community charity drives/events – 59 percent
  • On-site events/celebrations – 58 percent
  • Wellness competitions like walking/fitness challenges – 51 percent
  • Healthy food choices in cafeteria or vending machines – 44 percent
  • Standing/walking work stations – 42 percent
  • Wearable fitness trackers – 23 percent.

As that survey shows, and other research has found, the concept of wellness programs itself is stretching.

“There’s more of a growing awareness that wellness is not just tied to physical health anymore, with a flu shot, biometric screening and stop-smoking programs,” Stich says. “It’s much broader, more holistic than that — when you’re looking at an employee’s overall well-being.”

Those include promoting mental health, providing stress-reduction programs and even considering financial well-being.

“Are your employees financially literate? Are they drowning in debt?” Stich says.

Younger workers are motivated by policies that value time off for volunteering for community service, and “all of that is being rolled into wellness now,” she adds. 

Small Scale

It might seem that wellness programs are something mainly for large employers with extensive human resources departments to help design and manage them, but Stich says it doesn’t have to be that way.

“You don’t need to have this massive budget to start a wellness program. You don’t need to have a dedicated staff person to start a wellness program. It can be more grassroots, and it can start small and grow to something bigger.”

Take flu shots, for example. Even though wellness is much bigger than annual vaccination programs, that can be one place to start. Local hospitals and health care centers can send professionals to come to your office and give flu shots or provide other health screenings, often at little or no charge.

There are other low-tech and low-cost approaches. For instance, employers may want to set up a periodic recreational activity — say, a monthly bowling night.

“We don’t always think about outside social activities as being part of wellness, but it is something that can improve morale,” Stich says.

Such activities also encourage people to become more physically active.

If you contract with a provider of employee assistance programs, or EAPs, they can also be recruited to provide some wellness programming, such as a monthly lunch-and-learn sessions with various experts on subjects such as stress management, smoking cessation or the like.

The foundation offers a list of different wellness initiatives at

Insurance Breaks

Big employers sometimes reward employees for taking part in wellness initiatives by reducing their insurance premiums. That might not be practical in a small business, but it’s at least worth asking your insurer whether there are options for doing that. That said, some attempts to base employee incentives on wellness have come under federal scrutiny in recent years, and the status of those kinds of programs is uncertain until new guidance comes from Washington, D.C., Stich says. 

Perhaps, for now, it’s best to take a broader view, as Stich suggests. What can your business do to make life better for employees — and help them become healthy, wealthy and wise? There might not be any way to measure that in dollars and cents, but the benefits could be priceless.


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