8 ways to engage your workforce in a wellness program

March 25, 2019 Steve Calechman

Corporate wellness is still in a growth phase. It was an almost $8 billion industry in 2016. It should be over $10 billion in 2020. The return on investment remains harder to define. A Harvard study put it at $6 for every dollar spent, while a RAND study had it at $1.50.

The question isn’t so much if wellness programs can work, but how can they work. It’s not enough to schedule classes and hope they’re used. Whatever’s offered needs wide appeal, because as Bill Bourque, president of account management and field operations at EXOS, says, employee attitudes break down like this: 20 percent are already committed to fitness; 50 percent are convinced but inconsistent in their effort; 20 percent don’t always see working out as worth it; and 10 percent will have no interest.

While the intent is to attract and engage as many employees as possible, the key to wise spending is to target the middle 70 percent. They have some level of motivation and they want structure, but what all successful corporate wellness programs have in common is that they’re nuanced and take into account certain factors, such as getting supervisors to buy in; offering time-efficient programs; creating a company-wide healthy culture; and giving incentives to keep employees engaged. Incorporating some or all of these things into your corporate wellness strategy can help you rally your team. Use these tips to get started.

Coaches can delve into your employees' deeper desires and use those insights to build appropriate exercise and nutrition recommendations.

1. Get middle managers on board.

Executives and employees are musts. The former controls the money; the latter are the main users. But the overlooked group are supervisors. “Without them, you’re going nowhere,” says Nick Anthony, director of performance at EXOS. Their primary focus is on having employees be productive, not healthy. Managers need to see the incentive to have employees away from their desks and be incentivized themselves to take part in the program. If they’re visible, along with executives, it makes it easier for everyone to follow.

2. Keep everything short.

Even with executive backing, time is not unlimited. Nothing can last longer than 30 minutes — people have to be in and out, with a shower, in under an hour. All consultations and classes are done in under 15 minutes. This takes away any resentment. “Nobody will complain about 13 minutes,” Anthony says. And because they’re doable, immediate results will be felt and continue to be built upon.

The key to wise spending of corporate wellness dollars is to target the middle 70 percent of your population.

The gym isn't for everyone. Try supporting your employees' interest in activities outside the gym to find what interests them.

3. Build a gym that’s smart and inviting.

"Square footage is an unambiguous signal of commitment," Anthony says. But it also needs certain features. It has to be centrally located; again, no wasted time. It needs to be stocked with commercial gym-grade equipment, which is one way to recognize the needs of already-committed employees. And the space has to be laid out with the uninitiated in mind. They might have the desire, but they don’t have the ability or comfort level of being in a gym. "Their equipment should be grouped together near the entrance, and once they progress, the next set should be close by," Bourque says.

Research shows 43 percent of people work remotely. Initiating individual contact to discover their goals can help off-site employees engage.

4. Discover why people want to work out.

Technology can assist with preliminary surveys of employees’ interests and goals, but real-time, personal contact will give the necessary details. As an example, a person’s initial desire may be to lose weight. The follow-up question is, Why do you want to? "Whether it’s to bike faster up hills or be more active with grandchildren, the relevant program can be created," Bourque says. Trainers can then use that insight to monitor, make exercise or nutrition suggestions, and continue to motivate.

5. Meet people where they are.

Not everyone is in the office. A 2016 Gallup report found that 43 percent of employees spent time working remotely. "They present an engagement challenge," Bourque says. Digital questionnaires and tools can help employees find their health and fitness desires, but when programs work, they include individual contact, which can be as simple as a phone call. This helps to cultivate intent and discover the reasons someone wants to make a change. After that, it becomes about keeping regular communication through email, texting, or video conferencing to cement trust, guide action steps, build accountability, and then focus on getting that person to the desired outcome.

Managers need to see the incentive to have employees away from their desks and be incentivized themselves to take part in the program.

Having an inviting gym on-site can work for those with only a short lunch break and appeal to employees of all fitness levels.

6. Create a healthy culture.

It’s not enough to have a gym if donuts are the go-to meeting snack. Take it a step further and get rid of all the empty calories in the office. "Employees will adjust and it sends a message that the company is fully invested," Anthony says. At the least, don’t make it harder for anyone to stick with a program. One move is to put soda on the bottom row of vending machines. A Cornell study found that easily available soft drinks could mean a 24- to 26-pound weight gain. In the cafeteria, make the salad bar prominent, and have sandwiches come on whole wheat, with a side of vegetables; people then have to opt-in for less healthy options. "It all helps those trying to become healthy, and it’s another way to support those who have made it their lifestyle," Bourque says.

7. Support all kinds of activity.

Weights are sufficient for some people, but basketball or laser tag are still about movement, and the strategy and data components appeal to certain people. Other employees might want to compete in road races or together in a recreational league. "While it’s outside of office hours, companies can pay the entry or registration fees, another way to support both those trying to be healthy and those who would already do it on their own," Bourque says.

8. Give incentives to compete and have fun.

One approach successful companies take with any offering is targeting sections of the office rather than trying to blanket an entire organization. Departments have built-in relationships; peer pressure can be leveraged to keep people engaged. After that, support, even encourage, competition, both during and after work hours. Departments, buildings, or office locations can trash talk, post results, and prepare for a rematch. Again, entry fees are covered by the company, and, as extra incentive, winning teams could snag customized shirts or be entered into a raffle. "Whatever the pursuit, the effect is the same: Goals are set, but training doesn’t seem as tedious when personal pride or an iPad is on the line," Bourque says.

About the Author

Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman is a Boston-based writer and longtime contributing editor for Men's Health.

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