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Make Your Employee Wellness Program Effective

How can you make your employee wellness program effective?

Last week we talked about ways to measure the effectiveness, but we need to know the components of effectiveness as well.

Understanding Employee Needs & Goals

First and foremost, you must understand your employees’ needs and goals in order to create a program that caters to them. Regardless of whether your goals are to reduce healthcare costs, decrease absenteeism, or something else, the program must result in changes in employee behaviors and health to achieve those other goals. Understanding employee needs provides direction for your program design. What health issues do your employees struggle with? What obstacles prevent them from reaching their health goals? Where is there room for improvement in daily habits? Gather this information and build your program around it.

Participation

If your employees can’t or don’t want to participate in your wellness program, it can’t be effective. You can’t reap the benefits without participating.

You’ve taken care of step 1 if you’ve designed a program around employee needs because Step 1 is to get employees to want to participate. The programming must appeal to them.

But wanting to participate is very different from being able to participate. If workloads are out of control, employees feel pressured to skip their breaks, or are generally overwhelmed and burned out, they will not participate. Part of planning your program is to make sure employees can actually participate in it.

Another component of the ability to participate is the inclusivity of the program. Not all employees may be able to participate or feel comfortable participating in certain activities. Take those needs into account so you can offer alternatives.

Follow Through

Just as you need to make participation in the program feasible, you need to make follow through on program action items as feasible as you can as well. This could mean the provision of tangibles, such a fitness trackers or food journals. It could also mean encouraging breaks or better managing workloads. Or it could mean new initiatives, like an employee walking group. Remember, because of the tremendous impact work has on our lives (we easily spend up to 30% of our time at work), the onus cannot fall solely on employees to make healthful changes.

Assess and Reassess Regularly to Make Your Employee Wellness Program Effective

Waiting until the conclusion of an employee wellness initiative to find out that it wasn’t helpful is useless. Instead, check in regularly on the effectiveness of your program so you can course correct before it’s too late.

There are many components that contribute to your ability to make your employee wellness program effective. But if you are organized, methodical, and take these factors into account, you will be able to create a more effective program.

women performing yoga on green grass near trees

Make an Effective Employee Wellness Program with Data

You can ensure you have an effective employee wellness program through careful planning and data tracking. As every manager knows (or should know) data collection is critical to gauging the success of an initiative.

When it comes to collecting and analyzing data on the success of your employee wellness program, however, things get tricky. Privacy and discrimination concerns make it challenging to collect certain information from employees. It can also create a very toxic and unhealthy workplace to collect certain information, such as employee weight for a weight loss challenge (which I never recommend doing to begin with).

So how can you measure the success of your program?

Determining What Metrics to Use

Before you start data collecting, you must get clear on the goals of your program and which metrics measure progress towards those goals. This means you need to have a good understanding of your workforce – their pain points, what they need support with. You also must understand your overall organizational goals – cost savings, employee retention, productivity, etc. To be effective, your program must be structured around those targets on both the employer and employee sides. From there the question is which data will indicate progress towards those targets.

As an example, say you want to implement an effective employee wellness program focused on stress management to decrease employee burnout. We know that symptoms of burnout include decreased productivity, increased interpersonal conflict, absenteeism, and presenteeism. Knowing that, after several months of the program, you could check your production numbers and check in with your HR department to see what their data looks like for absences, employee conflicts, etc.

Of note, when it comes to wellness programs, many of the measures are less tangible. For example, employee morale could be an indicator of the success of a program but it’s difficult to measure. I recommend taking these less tangible measures into account; but keep in mind that your perception of them may be influenced by outside factors.

It is always a good idea to consult with legal counsel whenever it’s possible that data collection could breach privacy.

Once you select your metrics, you must establish realistic goals and establish a schedule to assess those metrics.

From here, the question is, how to collect the data you need.

How to Collect Your Data

One way is to just allow your employees to track their own progress. This means they also have to set their own goals as well. It is great if the company offers a way for employees to track, but technological solutions often entail privacy concerns. In that case, offering something such as my Empowered Eating Journal to employees could be a simple solution. This journal allows users to set goals, track their daily habits and progress, and continually reassess and re-strategize. I would consider this a hands-off approach.

Another way to track is to look for trends in your company’s health insurance costs. I would consider this a lagging indicator, however, so you will want to review it over the course of a longer span of time. It’s also not necessarily reflective of actual changes employees have made. But if one of the goals of your program is to decrease those costs, then this is definitely a metric to look at.

A third way to assess the success of your wellness program is to poll your employees. I strongly recommend keeping responses anonymous and avoid asking for specifics. (Again, consult with the proper counsel for privacy concerns). This could look like polls conducted at the close of each session to gauge interest, usefulness, etc. This could also be a quarterly poll assessing whether the program has been impactful thus far. Or it could be just a once a year assessment.

Ideally, you can work collaboratively with your provider to determine program goals, metrics, data collection, and assessment strategies.

Is this approach for everyone?

Creating a structured program around your goals which allows employees to set their own goals can be more effective than piecemeal style programs. However, that is not to say that there is no benefit to be derived from these more freestyle programs – they absolutely can offer some benefits to employees. In fact, if you have a wide range of employee needs, a more varied program may offer benefits to more employees than a narrowly targeted and structured program. However, if you have specific organizational goals for your program, then it’s worth dedicating the time for structuring and assessing.

women having exercise using dumbbells

Add virtual fitness classes to your employee wellness program

Virtual fitness classes are a winning addition to any employee wellness program for a number of reasons. In fact, it’s predicted that employers will be adding more virtual fitness classes to their programs this year. Read on for some reasons you should consider incorporating these classes into your programs.

Virtual Fitness Classes are Convenient

Who wants to get sweaty right in the middle of their workday and then go back to their desk? Most people probably don’t. Providing a workout opportunity to folks while they’re working remotely is much more convenient as they don’t have to worry about being in the office and they are able to hop in the shower afterwards.

They Make Movement Easier

We all know that we shouldn’t sit for too long and should take breaks to move around. However, this can be very challenging when we are left to our own devices. Offering a structured opportunity for movement makes it more likely that employees will take a break from sitting.

Virtual Classes Take the Pressure Off

The thought of participating in structured physical activity with co-workers can intimidate a lot of folks. And doing that activity in fitness clothes makes it that much more daunting. Participating from a location away from co-workers and also being able to turn off the camera may make folks more likely to participate. This also puts folks at ease in terms of going at their own pace and choosing different variations for each exercise based on their level.

They’re Adaptable for Hybrid Teams

If you have a hybrid team, you can provide a fitness class for folks on and off site very simply thanks to technology. This could look like gathering on-site employees into a common space to participate in a virtual class with the remote team or it could be on-site folks taking a live class that is streamed to the remote team.

Affordability

Virtual fitness classes often cost less than other on-site activities.

I’ve had a lot of fun teaching virtual fitness classes to employees over the last several years. I’ve taught teams who all have their cameras off and I’ve also had teams that chit chat the whole time and sing along with the playlist. Either way, I love doing it and it’s been a fantastic benefit to the teams I’ve worked with.

View my virtual fitness class offerings here

women performing yoga on green grass near trees

Engage remote workers with wellness programs

As the pandemic shifted our workplace paradigm to include working from home, many managers have been left asking how to engage remote workers.

Indeed, many employers are struggling with employee engagement in a remote world. Solutions to this issue require some creativity and commitment but it can be done. Incorporating an employee wellness program can be a great way to kill two birds with one stone: offer a new enticing benefit and use it as a way to engage remote workers.

Here are some ways you can use your employee wellness programs as a tool to engage or re-engage your remote team.

Engage remote workers by making your wellness programming a group activity.

For example, hold a virtual healthy cooking class where employees can prep the food along with the host and include time for socializing while folks enjoy their final products.

Theme your virtual fitness classes.

Encourage participants to turn on their cameras, dress to the theme, and have fun with it. Maybe the soundtrack could be all contributions from the team.

Involve your workforce in the planning process.

Engage remote workers by asking them what types of programs would meet their needs. Then use those suggestions in planning your programs. Alternatively, create an employee wellness committee that meets regularly to plan out programming.

Keep programs as interactive as possible.

No one wants to sit and listen to someone talk on Zoom for 50 minutes or even 30 minutes for that matter! Work with your wellness program provider to make sure that there are interactive components like break out rooms, polls, games, and group activities included in their sessions. The more opportunities to hear from and interact with their colleagues the better!

Add a special touch.

Provide yoga mats, wooden utensils with your company logo, or another small gift as a reminder of the community you and your employees belong to. Check out my friend Gail Zona for some great, handmade, personalized corporate gifts.

Solicit feedback from employees after each session.

This can reassure employees that you want to make sure the programs are supportive to them. It follows, then, that their feedback should then be taken into account in the future.

Make participation feasible and desirable.

Low turnout is a very common issue reported by employers regarding their wellness programs. And an empty wellness program doesn’t help engagement very much. It’s important that employees understand the value of the program and are actually able to participate in it. So clearly communicate how the wellness programs will support your remote workers’ specific needs and ensure they have the time and opportunity to join in.

Avoid activities that could be exclusionary.

For example, virtual wine pairings could leave some team members out but maybe a virtual mocktail/cocktail class could work. Exercise challenges also tend to be an exclusionary program. Aim for variety in your offerings so there is something for everyone. 

woman sitting in front of macbook

How to help employees manage workplace stress

Since April is Stress Awareness Month, I think it’s worth looking at how managers can help their employees manage workplace stress.

Prior to the pandemic, a Metlife survey found that 60% of employees believed supporting mental well-being should NOT be an employer’s responsibility. However, their most recent survey found that now 62% DO believe it should be an employer’s responsibility. And I agree!

Think about it:  Let’s say you work 40 hours per week. Multiply that by 50 (assuming 2 weeks vacation), that’s 2000 hours per year which is about 23% of your year. But, realistically, many of us, perhaps most of us, are working more in the range of 50-60 hours per week (or we don’t have or use our PTO). So that is about 1/3 of your year spent at work! That translates to tremendous potential for work to impact your mental well-being.

Furthermore, we know that employee burnout is not only a massive problem but also that it’s a systemic issue, not an individual employee issue. This further underscores the need for employer support for mental well-being.

How to Manage Workplace Stress

I think of stress management as a 2-part process:

  1. Minimizing the stressors within your control
  2. Mitigating the effects of the stressors outside of your control

As you can see, part 1 is proactive and part 2 is reactive. Very often we only think about the reactive part because the proactive part has a lot to do with saying “no” and having boundaries, which can be uncomfortable.

It can be extremely challenging for employees in particular to take action on part 1. But it’s essential because reactive stress management can only get you so far. Once the waters get too deep, you can’t get your head above them. And we know that unrelenting and unmitigated stress is a major contributor to burnout.

Employees must be able to advocate for themselves when it comes to their workload and managers must make that doable. This comes from open communication, workplace culture, modeling balancing behaviors, among other strategies.

So, as part of Stress Awareness Month, I encourage all managers reading this to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do your employees feel empowered and comfortable to turn down tasks they don’t have to take on immediately?
  • Do they feel like they are able to approach you and ask for help prioritizing their workload?
  • Are they able to ask for support with their workload without fear of adverse consequences?

If you answered no to any of those, how can you make the workplace more amenable to help employees proactively manage workplace stress?

group of people watching on laptop

Fixing low turnout for your employee wellness program

One of the objections to employee wellness programs that I frequently hear is previously they experienced low turnout.

As a wellness program provider, I have heard this several times from businesses of different sizes and across different industries. Getting solid participation in employee wellness programs can be a challenge. And creating incentive to participate without crossing over into coercion can be equally challenging. 

So what is an employer to do to increase low turnout?

The first step is to really be in touch with your workforce.

  1. Survey your workforce to determine which wellness topics and program types appeal to them the most.
  2. Pay attention to workloads and deadlines. You can have the greatest program lined up, but if employees don’t feel they can attend because of deadlines or an overwhelming workload, they won’t make it. You need to be strategic about the timing of your programs and/or find ways to make it easier for staff to attend. 
  3. Don’t forget about the quiet ones. There tends to be a group of frequent flyers in every office – the outgoing, more gregarious employees who live to participate in group activities. How can you reach out to the quieter, less outgoing staff members to encourage them to join in? This could mean personal invitations, different types of events where the social pressure isn’t so high, or asking them specifically what they are looking for. 
  4. Aim for more variety in your offerings. There are many reasons why folks opt out of participating in wellness programs. For example, a healthy eating seminar could be triggering for a staff member who is in recovery from an eating disorder. A group fitness classes may be intimidating to staffers with diverse bodies or abilities. Offering variety ensures you’re not alienating subpopulations of staffers from an entire series. 

Offer incentives to participate

But be sure those incentives don’t turn into penalties for not participating.

  1. One type of incentive is to simply make it easy for staff to attend. This could be blocking off time on the calendar for everyone to avoid meeting conflicts, frequent reminders of the program, making a live and a virtual option available, to name a few.
  2. You could offer small prizes for participation, like entry into a raffle or small gifts like a yoga mat. Keeping it small is ket not just for your budget but for also ensuring participation is still optional.
  3. Avoid the participation challenge approach where the more events attended increases an employee’s odds of winning. This approach can expose disparities in the workplace, engendering resentment among staff (ex. Why is his workload so light?). It can also alienate certain staff members if not enough variety is offered.
  4. Do not make participation mandatory. Sure this is a great way to get your attendance numbers up, but folks may not get much out of the program and you also run the risk of unwittingly doing harm to staff members who would otherwise have not participated for personal reasons (see point 4 above). 

Keep in mind there are a number of reasons for historically low turnout and many have nothing to do with the program itself. Rather than giving up on offering something of value to employees, troubleshoot the situation and seek out creative solutions.

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How to make your employee wellness program more inclusive

How can you make your employee wellness program more inclusive?

Over the years, I’ve heard some upsetting stories about workplace wellness programs – from cultural foods being dismissed as unhealthy to stigmatizing weight loss challenges, from culturally insensitive remarks to employees being pushed, pulled, and prodded to explain why they don’t want to participate.

While there are plenty of good intentions out there, we can’t overlook the fact that the wellness industry has an exclusivity problem. And, if we’re being honest, the American workplace does, too. If employees feel uncomfortable, singled out, or stressed out by a company wellness program, then that program is harming their wellness rather than helping it.

Here are some tips to help make your employee wellness program more inclusive:

  • Consider your workforce’s cultural and ethnic composition. Many nutrition programs take a white-centric approach and mistakenly assume all cultural foods are unhealthy. Not only is this untrue, it is also stigmatizing to have a nutrition professional dismiss an entire culture’s foods. Employees should not feel self-conscious bringing their cultural foods into work for lunch.
  • Consider your workforce’s overall socioeconomic status. If a company’s wages are relatively low, advising its employees to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store (ie. only buy fresh produce and meats) is not particularly helpful since it may be economically unfeasible. Your wellness program must propose accessible solutions to your employees to be helpful.
  • Avoid weight loss challenges. These challenges are incredibly stigmatizing to employees in larger bodies, making the workplace an uncomfortable and sometimes hostile place. These may also be triggering to employees with a history of eating disorders and disordered eating. Finally, the data shows these challenges are completely ineffective as employees don’t make lasting healthful changes. So why risk harming the well-being of some staffers?
  • Incentivizing participation is great, but keep in mind that employees may have their own personal reasons for not participating that they are not obligated to disclose to you. For example, an employee in eating disorder recovery may choose not to participate in a healthy cooking class that discusses calorie counting. An employee with a larger body may feel too self-conscious to participate in a fitness class. Participating in certain activities may be considered inappropriate in some employees’ culture. The workplace needs to be a safe space where employees feel free to choose whether to participate in activities based on the reasons important to them.

Your HR department should be heavily involved in planning your wellness programs to help ensure company demographics are considered. Be sure to share a company profile with your prospective wellness program providers including that workforce composition information and ask them what they propose in light of that information. You could also request to see examples of their previous programming for other companies to get an idea of whether they are appropriate for your workforce.

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How to find time to eat at work

As more of us are returning to the workplace, I’m hearing very frequently from folks that they are finding it difficult to find time to eat at work. As a result, many find themselves ravenous when they return home, leading them to overeat or make food choices they would not have otherwise.

What Happens When We Undereat During Our Workday

A number of issues arise when we fail to eat during our workday. For one, our energy levels drop and it becomes hard to focus. Our performance may suffer, whether we realize it or not. That extreme hunger can also impact our mood and, by extension, our relationships with our coworkers and staff. Failing to provide our bodies with ample nutrition during the day also makes us less resilient to stress. When we do get to eat and overdo it, that often results in feelings of guilt, shame, and regret, further contributing to our stress levels and sometimes leading to unhealthy behaviors to compensate. Finally, eating too much too late can disrupt our sleep, which can affect our performance, stress levels, and immune system function.

How to Make It Easier to Find Time to Eat at Work

Ideally, we make time for at least a lunch break each day, but sometimes that’s not possible. If you find yourself struggling to pull yourself away from your work, it’s important to make it as easy as possible to eat.

What to Eat at Work

When eating at work, we want to make sure that we have enough energy and are feeling satisfied throughout the day. The key to achieving this is balanced snacking. Combining protein, complex carbohydrates, and fat will provide the calories and nutrition we need.

  • Protein – provides fullness and satiety for longer periods
  • Complex Carbohydrates – provides steady, lasting energy levels
  • Fat – contributes to satisfaction as well as energy

Here are some nutritious snacks that will hit the mark on this:

  • Starkist tuna packet with whole grain crackers
  • Crunchy chick pea or edamame snacks
  • Jerky
  • Protein bars
  • DIY trail mix: nuts, dried fruit, dark chocolate chips
  • Individual packs of almonds
  • Cheese stick with whole grain crackers
  • Apple with nut butter (individual packets of nut butter like Justin’s are super handy!)

You might have noticed that many of the examples above are shelf stable and/or transportable. That is entirely by design. Keeping snacks like these in your desk drawer or in your car makes it very easy for you to eat and make nutritious choices.

So that’s one step for making it easier for yourself to eat during the workday: keep simple snacks handy.

But what if you tend to look up at 4 pm and realize you haven’t eaten since 8 am?

A good solution for this issue is to set an alarm or calendar event for every 2 hours or so. When that alarm goes off, take a minute or two to check in with yourself: when was the last time you ate? Do you feel any signs of hunger right now? How is your energy? Your focus? If you’re feeling hungry, grab one of those easy snacks.

If you are able to make these small changes and increase the amount of food you eat during the work day, you will likely find you energy levels improve, your mood improves, and you feel more in control around food at the end of the day.

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woman sitting in front of macbook

Employee Stress: How You Can Help During the Holidays

Discussions about employee stress often focus on what the individual can do to help themself, but have you thought about how you can help your employees manage their holiday stress?

Chronically high stress is a key ingredient in the recipe for burnout. As such, it’s important for managers to recognize the signs and the areas where there is the possibility for them to contribute to or subtract from that stress. 

Here are some simple, yet powerful ways you can start doing that.

Assisting with Employee Stress Management

  • Check in with employees regularly. You should have a good idea of their workload and their stress levels. Check in with them to see how they’re doing and look for nonverbal cues.
  • Redistribute tasks as necessary. Following from tip # 1, if workloads are too heavy for some, redistribute as is appropriate and doable. Also, help employees prioritize. Some things may need to be back-burned for the time-being and you need to communicate that it is OK when that happens.
  • Infuse some fun into the season. I don’t mean the obligatory office “fun” folks roll their eyes at. Seek out the activities and events employees actually enjoy and host those, whether it’s a Secret Snowflake gift exchange, a surprise lunch on the company dime, or in-office chair massage. 
  • Foster an environment that prioritizes mental health. Encourage employees to take their lunch break. Don’t “ding” employees for using PTO. Ask them about how they’re doing and show genuine interest in their responses. Remind them of the resources they have available to support them, such as EAPs. And model work-life balance to them through your own actions and choices.
  • Give staff some liberty in how they work. Gone are the days when seats had to be kept warm until 5 pm. Employees want flexibility and trust and they aren’t tolerating micromanaging. It’s important for management to be open to different ways of achieving the same goals and tasks. Being able to work from home and get the work done when it works best for them can go a really long way towards keeping stress at bay.

As I’ve said before, employee burnout doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it’s critical for management to step in to avoid it as well.

people woman relaxation laptop

Employee Burnout Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Employee burnout is a hot topic right now, as it very well should be. A July 2021 survey by The Hartford found that 55% of US employees reported feeling always burned out while 16% said they often feel burned out. And study after study has shown that levels of burnout in the American workforce are all-time highs with no signs of dropping. We also know that burnout is one of the factors fueling our current Great Resignation in which employees are leaving their jobs in droves.

At this point in time, if you are an employer or manager who does not realize that employee burnout is a very real issue, something is wrong. Whether employee burnout is real isn’t the question. Rather, the question is: what do we do about it?

As a wellness provider and an employee wellness program provider, specifically, I can say with confidence that employee burnout does not happen in a vacuum. It’s not an isolated incident and it is not the sole responsibility of the employee. The employee does not choose to wallow in stress and burn out. Management plays a critical and massive role in both creating and preventing burnout. So a few webinars on self-care and stress management for employees simply will not cut it.

What Causes Employee Burnout?

A number of factors contribute to employee burnout, but at its most basic burnout occurs when the burden is too great and the outlets too little. Or, as Emily and Amelia Nagoski explained in their 2019 Book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Code, burnout occurs when we become stuck in between our stress response and stress resolution. Something must happen to break us out of that jail and resolve that stress response.

So what gets us stuck?

Causes of employee burnout often have little to do with the employees themselves:

  • Having too great a workload and/or too few resources to deal with it
  • High-conflict work environments/lack of community in the workplace
  • A lack of trust or recognition from supervisors
  • Ineffective or poor management
  • Unclear roles

These are issues that management is responsible for. These are not issues that employees can address or fix. And no amount of meditation or nature walks will remedy them.

Related to these contributors to burnout are factors such as:

  • lack of social support
  • lack of boundaries between work and home life, and
  • poor stress management

What Can Management Do?

Giving employees tools to manage their stress is important – I should know, since I provide those webinars. But it cannot end there. Management must demonstrate to their employees that they are supported and their well-being matters. In this day and age, if an employee doesn’t believe that to be the case, they are walking out the door.

It Starts with You

As a manager, you can model behavior to help mitigate burnout. For example, implement boundaries between work and home life for yourself and adhere to them. Don’t keep it a secret when you take a mental health day or do some type of self-care. Make sure your employees know that you do these things. This demonstrates that it is acceptable for them to do the same. Then, take it a step further and make expectations for employee availability explicit. If you don’t expect them to answer emails at 9 o’clock at night, tell them that…and make sure you’re not emailing them at 9 pm either. This creates a company culture in which caring for your well-being is not only accepted but expected.

But modeling these behaviors isn’t helpful if you aren’t creating an environment conducive to employees utilizing those behaviors as well. As a manager, you need to have open and honest conversations with your employees, even the quiet ones. You need to check in with the regularly. You should know what their workloads are like and whether they are properly resourced for them. You should how they’re feeling. And you MUST be able to offer flexibility to support them. That can mean redistributing the workload, sitting down with them to help them prioritize, reallocating resources to them, etc. It also means that you need to be aware if and when you needlessly contribute to that workload through unnecessary or drawn-out meetings, micromanaging, excessive email or phone communication, etc. And you must reel that in when it happens.

As a manager, it’s critical that you always have your finger on the pulse of your workforce so that you can see the early signs of burnout and take action to mitigate it as best as possible.

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