Two key factors for a successful workplace wellness program

What makes an employee wellness program successful?

Researchers from the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health attempted to answer that question by identifying best practices in the most effective wellness programs.

So, what did researchers say are the key success factors?

The name of the study gives it away: “Promoting Healthy Workplaces by Building Cultures of Health and Applying Strategic Communications.”

According to the study, two primary keys to employer-sponsored wellness program success are:

1) building an organizational culture of health and
2) applying strategic communications

The researchers analyzed nine companies whose wellness programs showed demonstrable results, reviewed past research and held roundtable discussions with experts in the field. Their findings were published in the February 2016 Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine .

Key success factor #1: Building a culture of health

The study defines a workplace with a culture of health as one that “places value on and is conducive to employee health and well-being.”

“Employers with successful wellness programs have learned that isolated ‘perks’ or programs such as an on-site fitness center or menu labeling, will not have much impact unless they are part of an overall culture that permeates all aspects of company life,” the study says.

Everyone has a hand in the culture

Leaders, managers and employees all have roles to play to truly integrate wellness into the fabric of an organization.

  • Leaders set the example when they practice healthy behaviors, implement healthy policies and practices, and provide enough resources to sustain wellness programs, the study says.

    For example, at one large company the researchers studied, the CEO was public about his own weight loss goals.
  • Managers must encourage employees to incorporate healthy activities into their workdays.

    “In a culture of health, managers offer work flexibility, decision latitude, reasonable goals, social support and consistent messaging on the value of health and well-being,” the study says.
  • Employees can help shape and build the wellness program so that it meets their needs. Employee engagement could include focus groups, program evaluations or simply having an environment where employees feel free to share their suggestions with leaders.

    “At many of the organizations we visited, employees reported being very engaged in the program and ‘owners’ of the program because initiatives were continually evolving based on their feedback,” the study says.

Embedding wellness as a way of life

Ultimately, wellness must be seen not just as a program, or even package of programs, but as a part of how the organization operates, the study says.

“It is about creating a ‘way of life’ in the workplace that integrates a total health model into every aspect of the business practice — from being embedded in the corporate mission down to the policies and everyday work activities that are supportive of career, emotional, financial, physical and social well-being,” the study says.


Worker eating a healthy snack of fruit as part of a successful employee wellness program

Creating an environment that physically supports health

Do employees at your workplace have easy access to exercise and healthy food options during the workday? Is making the healthy choice the default option?

These key questions can help you determine whether your work environment physically supports employee health.

For example, researchers visited Next Jump, a company of 200 employees. Next Jump started by holding fitness classes in a company conference room after hours and later built an on-site fitness center. Management there stocks the refrigerator with free healthy snacks like yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, fruits, vegetables and hummus, and candy jars have been replaced with fresh fruit and nuts.

Key success factor #2: Applying strategic communications to improve employee health

Researchers called strategic communications “one of the most critical building blocks” for a successful wellness program.

Communications can help employees understand how the program works and what they’ll get out of participating. It can also be used to share success stories and reinforce the most popular aspects of the wellness plan.

One study researchers cited showed that organizations with frequent and strong communication campaigns were able to spend $80 per person less on financial incentives and still get high wellness program participation.

Successful wellness program promotional campaigns are built to achieve well-defined objectives, whether that’s motivating employees to make healthy choices by sharing success stories or increasing awareness of available health and wellness resources.

6 tips for an effective communication strategy

    1. Be transparent with employees about why the organization promotes health. Being genuine will build trust.
    2. Avoid targeting a specific health ideal, like achieving a body mass index of 25 or less, or taking 10,000 steps per day. Instead, encourage employees to set and achieve progressive goals that are attainable for them.
    3. Use a variety of messaging channels: email, newsletters, posters, direct mail, intranet and social media. And don’t forget word-of-mouth communication (especially from peers and leaders they know personally)!
    4. Communicate frequently to increase awareness and ongoing participation. Vary the messaging so it doesn’t become overwhelming or stale.
    5. Deliver messages at key decision points, such as nutrition-related messages at the point of purchase or general marketing about the programs during new employee orientation.
    6. Ensure the communication goes both ways. Ask employees for feedback and input to learn about their needs and interests. Use this to continuously refine the program.

    As employer-sponsored wellness programs continue to evolve, a mindset of continuous improvement, deepening the integration of health into organizational culture and open communication will help your employee wellness program thrive.

    This post was originally published on March 15, 2016, and updated on June 14, 2017.

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