So you've been asked to come up with a corporate wellness strategy? Here's where to start

Implementing a corporate wellness strategy can be a daunting task. After all, wellness programs range from email newsletters to multimillion-dollar fitness centers.

Given the skyrocketing cost of health care and claims, most companies find it necessary to establish at least a baseline wellness strategy. It’s also necessary from an employee recruitment and retention standpoint. Competition is fierce for top talent, and employees want to know they’ll be valued and cared for if they choose your organization.

If the assignment of creating a wellness strategy has fallen on your desk, it need not be intimidating. In fact, the more people you can engage in the process, the more effective your company’s strategy will be. Here are five steps to get started.

1. Turn to your employees.

Rather than querying employees about their health-related challenges, ask them what might be fun and interesting to them in terms of healthy opportunities that can be embedded in their workday.

“Instead of presenting this as a way to overcome illness, think in terms of what would help build the community and increase energy, interaction, and productivity,” says Chris Sherry, vice president of client communications at EXOS.

Ideally the employees will ask for programming that has a positive impact on the top three or four health risk factors you’re working to combat. Often, a younger employee population will be more likely to have musculoskeletal issues or mental health challenges, while an aging employee base could suffer more from pre-diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and issues related to high cholesterol. You can create program components that address contributing factors to all of these health issues with the right planning, without having to label it as pre-diabetes programming, for example.

2. Learn about other companies.

Your competitors might not compare notes with you on many things, but they likely see the benefit of raising overall public health and will be willing to share what they’ve done on the corporate wellness side. Of course, it’s possible to seek advice from employees of companies in unrelated fields who’ve implemented successful wellness strategies.

Your best input might come from your own employees who’ve worked elsewhere, especially those who lead active lifestyles. Such employees can become wellness champions within the company either officially or unofficially.

“You might have employees willing to add wellness to their job description because they’re passionate about it, and then it becomes a grassroots movement rather than something pushed upon the population,” says Heather Walker, U.S. health promotion manager at EXOS.

3. Start at the top.

Some companies take their cue from hard-charging C-suite executives who spend their spare time mountain biking or competing in triathlons. These executives may naturally encourage a culture in which employees form company softball teams or compete in obstacle races together.

In instances where management isn’t as involved or interested, it’s still important to keep leaders informed and aware of program goals. One way to do this is by relating program goals (and resulting outcomes) to things that can successfully influence successful organizational outcomes, such as greater productivity and less absenteeism. This should be an ongoing effort even after the program launches. Another area to focus on: recruiting middle management support. If employees feel their cigarette-smoking manager doesn’t approve of taking breaks to visit the fitness center, participation can suffer — even if the CEO encourages participation.

“There’s the issue of perceived permission,” Sherry said. “As an employee, do I have permission to step away from the desk and take that yoga class? Is that acceptable in our culture? Will my supervisor frown on this or support it?” That’s why it’s so important to have upper and middle management engaged from the beginning in planning a wellness strategy. Everyone should be on the same page in understanding that yes, this is what we do here.

4. Consider location.

With many employees working remotely, an on-site fitness center might never reach every employee. That’s why it’s important in the early stages of a corporate wellness strategy to consider what might be most beneficial. “It can be low-cost such as having a wellness committee that plans occasional events in the cafeteria, or bringing in dietitians or physical therapists,” Walker said. “Webinars can be an effective option for those working remotely.” Technology can also be a great way to scale to a remote or traveling population and help them feel connected to the main office buildings and other employees who’re also using the platform.

5. Think value on investment.

Reducing health claims is important, of course. When it comes to evaluating effectiveness of wellness strategies, there’s no shortage of quantitative financial factors you could consider. However, it’s equally important to consider if you’re improving productivity, stimulating creativity, and reducing burnout by increasing vitality.

Some of these factors can seem difficult to quantify, like the employees who establish a sense of community by training together or the employee goodwill toward their employer generated by encouraging a work-life balance. But many of these qualitative factors are measurable through employee feedback, testimonials, focus groups, user interviews, and surveys.

“It doesn’t have to be just about the financial return or savings,” says Sherry. “Qualitative benefits are just as important and should be factored in as part of your outcome assessment from the beginning. Sometimes it’s about doing the right thing for your employees, which will translate to the right thing for your organization.”

About the Author

Pete Williams

Florida-based writer Pete Williams is a longtime editorial contributor to EXOS.

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