With wellness programs, engaging efforts pay off

Rebecca Weitzel

Type workplace wellness benefits into your favorite internet search engine and you’ll likely discover a long list of conflicting articles that either claim wellness programs don’t work or they increase productivity, reduce turnover and cut costs. While it’s true check-the-box and outdated programs fail to deliver, well-designed programs unlock these great benefits — if employees participate.

So how do you encourage people to engage? Pull your wellness program out of the shadows, shine a bright spotlight on it and make sure it connects with employees in meaningful ways.

Out of the shadows: Is your wellness program merely a biometric screening or occasional weight-loss competition that appears once a year and is then forgotten? Do you start each year off with a lot of excitement only to lose everyone’s interest within a few months? Unpredictable wellness initiatives that come and go don’t inspire high levels of participation or long-term commitment. But these fates aren’t inevitable: You can maintain interest and engagement by creating a year-long plan with monthly themes, regular wellness education, three or four company wide challenges and support for individual and community wellness events. When employees see how each wellness activity fits into a comprehensive, well-organized program, they’re more likely to pay attention and remain involved.

Spotlight on wellness: If your wellness initiatives aren’t embraced by a high proportion of employees, perhaps your team members perceive the program as unimportant and easy to ignore. Consider overhauling your messaging to capture the essence of your company culture and values. Brand your wellness program with a memorable name and recognizable logo to convey its importance and permanency. Ensure senior leadership announces the program in person, by video or through a company wide e-mail and visibly participates throughout the year. When employees see top-level leaders value wellness, they’re more likely to value it themselves.

In addition to creating a brand and solidifying leadership support, help employees focus on your program with such marketing tools as well-timed e-mails (not too many), professionally designed posters, social media posts, newsletter articles, table tents in break rooms, digital messages scrolling on TV monitors or digital picture frames, such desk drops as a stress ball with a note encouraging breaks and more. Creative ideas entice employees to pay attention.

Marketing isn’t magic, however. No matter how large your organization, personal communications from key people remain essential to spotlighting your program. Direct supervisors with close employee relationships make a big difference in participation rates. Train them on the essentials of the program and make sure they know why it’s important. Ensure they receive such regular updates as monthly wellness talking points they can use to communicate with staff during meetings. Enlist wellness champions from each department to introduce new activities with enthusiasm. Consistent marketing and personal communications will keep your program front and center all year long.

Meaningful programs: Even if your marketing and personal communications are amazing, your program still needs regular checkups to determine if it resonates with employees. Conduct surveys at least once a year and seek feedback from supervisors and department wellness champions.

A sense of ownership also increases wellness program participation. Recruit individual employees to take the lead in activities in which they’re interested — like having an avid hiker lead a series of group hikes or asking a person who recently achieved financial freedom from debt lead a lunch-and-learn presentation about the journey. Help employees relate to each other on a personal level by spotlighting their individual or team-level achievements through newsletter stories or video interviews. Asking employees to volunteer or share their stories helps them feel confident the wellness program is truly about them.

Although participation remains one of the biggest challenges to building effective wellness programs, it’s possible to maximize participation through persistence, patience and bit of creativity. When participation rates increase, you’ll not only reap the business benefits wellness programs offer, but also see the subtle, yet impactful, returns of your investments in the increased number of employee smiles and extra miles they’re willing to tread, transforming your organization into a place where people truly want to work.