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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.

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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.

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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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The Case against Employee “Wellness” Challenges

Employee wellness challenges are very popular corporate programs – from walking challenges to weight loss challenges. But these challenges actually come with a number of issues which can make them more of a problem than a solution.

1. Change is temporary

One of the big drawbacks of these challenges is that they are not effective in creating any lasting changes in employee behaviors. Typically, employees will engage in a given healthy behavior for the duration of the challenge but fall off as soon as it’s over (if they make it that far). This is because the challenge prize is an extrinsic motivator rather than an intrinsic motivator. Extrinsic motivators are simply not as potent as internally-driven motivators. If one of the goals of your wellness program is to change employee behaviors in the long-term in meaningful ways that will improve their health, challenges will not achieve that.

2. Workplace wellness challenges don’t teach skills and strategies

Another reason why change does not last following these challenges is that they don’t provide employees with the skills and tools they need to implement the challenge objectives in a meaningful way. Instead, left to their own devices, employees will find a strategy that works for the time being, typically forcing the habit. Strategies are hodge-podge and not sustainable rather than accounting their day-to-day reality in the long-term. A more effective way to impact employee health is to focus on habit-building programs.

3. Challenges can be triggering and stigmatizing

For someone struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating, weight loss and fitness challenges can be triggering for them. This puts their recovery in jeopardy and can result in their sliding back into disordered behaviors. These challenges are also inherently fatphobic, equating weight with health and overlooking the fact that there is more to someone’s weight than eating and exercise habits. Employees in larger bodies may feel singled out or unduly pressured in the course of these challenges. Indeed, according to Aubrey Gordon, weight-focused programs in particular may compound inequities amongst employees. If you want to foster a safe, inclusive work environment, then it is best to avoid these wellness challenges.

4. Success tactics may not be healthy

When there is the promise of a prize and the challenge is short-term, some employees may resort to tactics that are not healthful for the sake of winning. Obviously, employing unhealthy tactics undermines the intent of the challenge and can create other issues for employee health. So is it worth the risk? (The answer is “no).

So what should you offer if employee wellness programs aren’t effective?

An effective employee wellness program must take into account the unique needs of your staff. When is your most difficult season? What are their major stressors? What are their biggest health concerns (if you know of any)? It must be educational as well as practical and motivational. It should teach appropriate skills and strategies and leave employees with doable action items. There should also be some variety in the program to appeal to different learning styles: some webinars, some demonstrations, some interactive and hands-on options. Above all, your employees need to feel that it is a program that truly has their best interests at heart.

Be sure to check out Well & Simple’s comprehensive employee wellness offerings

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