How to Create an Employee Wellness Program That Actually Works

Last updated: Jun 20, 2023

The American workforce is struggling. Take a look at these numbers: 

It all adds up to a bleak picture. But as an HR professional, you have the chance to make a difference for your employees. If you don’t already have one, consider offering an employee wellness program, which can: 

  • Improve the quality of your employees’ lives. 
  • Boost morale and productivity.
  • Increase retention and attract new talent.
  • Lower healthcare costs.
  • Help your company's bottom line.

If you already have a wellness program that isn’t working, keep reading to find out how to do it better. Let’s get started with how to make an employee wellness program that actually works. 


Tailor Your Wellness Program to Your Employees  

What a wellness program looks like depends on the company. Indeed describes a corporate wellness program as “a set of benefits a company implements to improve the well-being of its team members.” But these benefits range widely, and could include: 

  • An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) 
  • Health screenings and assessments 
  • Free vaccines at work
  • Mental health days 
  • Napping rooms (sign us up) 
  • Work/life balance initiatives  
  • Flexible schedules  
  • Gym memberships or fitness rooms 
  • Weight loss and smoking cessation programs 
  • Meditation time  
  • Healthy snacks and nutrition education 
  • Water bottle refill stations 
  • Ergonomic office equipment 
  • Financial literacy education 
  • Wellness incentives  
  • Community service 
  • Fun workplace activities 
 … And the list goes on — but how do you know what to provide for your employees? 


Start with the Data 

“The more tailored a wellness program can be, the better,” says Kelley Rexroad, an award-winning HR consultant, coach, and instructor for USF Corporate Training and Professional Development courses. To tailor your program, start by looking at the data — what story does it tell you about your employees and their challenges, your workplace culture, and industry trends? 

  • Pay attention to demographic data. Even the most basic information, like how far away most of your employees live, can lead to valuable insights. For example, long-distance commuters may not have time to hit their local gym after work — so you may want to strike a deal with your nearby gym, where colleagues can build social connections along with their physical fitness, Rexroad suggests.  
  • Incorporate big-picture data. What global circumstances could be affecting your employees? Since more than 75 percent of Americans are concerned about their finances, you can support your employees’ financial health through free financial literacy classes. 
  • Analyze anonymous data from your insurance broker, your healthcare provider or your employee assistance program to understand your employees’ mental, physical, and emotional needs. For example, if many of your employees are taking medication for depression and anxiety, you might want to evaluate the stress levels in your workplace, Rexroad advises. 
  • Look at safety records, facility assessments, and industry trends. Where can you make changes to reduce health risks or overall stress? 
  • Examine your turnover rates, retention rates, productivity rates, and absenteeism rates. If turnover is high, for example, it’s time to investigate your company culture. 


Involve Employees from the Get-Go 

“You need to understand what’s important to your employees,” Rexroad says. “You’ve got to meet people where they are. That’s a phrase we hear a lot these days, but we’ve got to remember, we can’t sit in our offices and create these (wellness) programs and then go, ‘Oh well, nobody comes’… Is it something your employees even want?” 

Get employee buy-in through:  

  • Surveys and focus groups, which help you figure out what wellness programs would interest them, what stressors they are currently facing, what volunteer work they are passionate about, what time commitment they have, etc.  
  • An employee wellness committee, which gives employees a voice in their own programs. 
  • Including their family members, who “help build a broader web of social support,” says the Harvard Business Review. 

Make sure you also have the support of your company’s leadership. To be successful, your program is going to need it. 

An employee working at a desk next to a rolled up yoga mat.

Make it Comprehensive and Holistic  

A true wellness program is well-rounded, addressing “the mind, body, spirit,” says Rexroad. Here’s an example of each facet:  

  • Mind: An employee assistance program can provide mental health benefits and support employees through various life crises. The very existence of this program is beneficial because it sends the message that it’s okay to talk about mental and emotional wellness at work, Rexroad explains.  
  • Body: “Wellness programs encourage employees to get up and do something active,” Rexroad says, which is especially important for desk job workers. (Sitting for hours can increase your risk of heart disease and early death). That’s why a common wellness benefit is a gym membership.  
  • Spirit: “I always put in the spirit piece to… make sure employees have that bit of camaraderie,” Rexroad says. Help your employees feel a sense of purpose — through the mission of your organization, volunteer work outings, etc. — and a sense of community. 

A commitment to wellness should extend beyond programs and become part of your company’s everyday culture. That includes making policies that improve your employees’ lives. Let’s look at an example:  

If your employee is distressed about childcare, “Meditation Mondays” aren’t going to do much good. Instead, make a policy change that relieves stress in a practical way: offer subsidized childcare, gender blind family leave, or flexible/hybrid work schedules, and base your performance metrics on results, not “hours spent in the office,” suggests this New York Times article on creating an equitable workplace.  


Keep Programs Accessible and Ethical 

Provide a variety of programs to ensure you accommodate your employees’ diverse needs. “It doesn’t mean everything has to be for everybody, but you should have enough of an array,” Rexroad says. She suggests you think about who your audience is — and then consider who you are missing. For example, you might change the location of your nature day from a trail to a boardwalk to accommodate employees in wheelchairs. Or, if single parents can’t come to your meditation retreat, make sure you also offer them something like a parent-child bowling tournament. 


In addition, make sure your programs don’t single out certain employees or penalize them for not participating. “A truly effective corporate wellness program should include and motivate everyone, rather than pressuring, embarrassing or even bribing high-risk employees to improve their health,” explains this SHRM article on inclusive programs. 


Finally, pay attention to legal and compliance requirements, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (You can read more about them in this SHRM article on building a wellness program.) 


Communicate Effectively

You can have the best wellness program in the history of HR, but it won’t do any good if your employees don’t know about it or aren’t motivated to participate. Follow Rexroad’s four C’s: clear, consistent, constant communication. Help employees understand: 

  • Wellness programs and benefits. 
  • How to get involved. 
  • How participation can improve their lives. 

Get the message out in a variety of ways — your monthly newsletter, communication from leadership, social media posts, posters, etc. 

Employees raising their hands and participating in a wellness program.

Do What You Can

Maybe you don’t have a big budget for wellness programs just yet. That’s okay. You don’t “have to have a full-fledged program to get started,” Rexroad says. “Just keep adding to it and pay attention to the data.” There are plenty of free ways to encourage well-being. You just need to get creative: 

  • Host walking meetings. “I used to do one-on-one [meetings] walking,” Rexroad says. “It made sure there was nothing else bothering me or them, and we could focus on each other.” Plus, it integrates physical activity into the workday. 
  • Invite employees on a lunchtime picnic break. 
  • Offer fruit at meetings instead of doughnuts. Even better, try this example from one of Rexroad’s students. Every Friday, employees bring extra fruit from their fruit trees (which are common in Florida) and share with each other. 
  • Invite the Florida License on Wheels Bus (FLOW) to visit your location, so employees can renew their licenses and registrations at work instead of spending hours at the DMV. (A big stress reliever.) 


Support Yourself

Treat yourself with the same compassion you give your colleagues and employees. You can’t fix everything overnight, and even the best wellness program has its limits. But by creating (or reinventing) a corporate employee wellness program and a healthy corporate culture, you’re showing employees that you care. “Any stressor that we can relieve for our employees allows them to focus better,” Rexroad says. “It means that we recognize them as being people, not just something we can use up.” 


Don’t forget that you need support, too. USF Corporate Training and Professional Development offers professional development courses for HR professionals, so you can get the mentorship you need to thrive.


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