How to Create an Employee Wellness Program

As ‘The Great Resignation’ continues to dominate headlines, new terms like ‘The Great Reset’ and ‘The Great Reimagination’ are arising as we all re-evaluate the role of work in our lives. For an increasing number of employees, work has become more than something they just do for financial compensation. Instead, workplaces are being evaluated based on how they contribute overall to their employees’ work and personal life.

The pandemic has created many new health and wellbeing challenges as well. So this, combined with an increasing need to compete with alternative employment options on the basis of wellbeing, mean that employee wellbeing is something that EVERY company needs to address.

So how can you implement a Workplace Wellness Program that actually works? You might think of gym memberships and fruit bowls, but there’s more to wellness than measures like these. In fact, research shows that workplace culture is the biggest roadblock employees face in their efforts to feel healthier and happier. 

A good wellness program involves creating and maintaining a sincere interest and commitment to helping employees lead healthy lives – both in their work, AND personal lives. 

That’s nice to know of course, but what can we as HR professionals (or at least, as the person charged with HR responsibilities) actually do about it?

Steps to Creating a Wellness Program

Designing and implementing a wellness program can be as complex or as simple as you choose. It’s not just for big corporations with teams dedicated to wellness either. Smaller businesses can easily create an effective wellness program that employees will appreciate.

Here are the broad steps to go through in creating a wellness program for your business…

1) Gain Management Commitment

First and foremost, you need to seek management support for an employee wellness program. Communicate how wellness ties into the current strategic priorities and the company’s stated values. After appealing to their sense that ‘it’s the right thing to do’, back this up with more tangible benefits such as;

  • A competitive advantage when recruiting
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Increased retention (resulting in a reduced need for recruiting)
  • Increased employee engagement
  • And ultimately, increased productivity and innovation

2) Create a Wellness Committee

Of course, you could have your wellness program totally driven from the HR department, but to get increased employee engagement and design a program that better meets the needs of more employees, a wellness committee is a better idea. Ideally, the committee should be cross-functional and diverse to best represent different groups of employees. (A committee is also a great opportunity to encourage cross-departmental collaboration too!)

You might want to consider having a time-limited commitment as well. This allows you to have a point in time where you allow members to opt out and encourage others to opt-in.

3) Determine Employee Needs

Once a committee is established, their first action-item should be to discover the wellness needs of employees. One way to do this is through a survey (HR Partner users can use Custom Forms to send to employees). This should include questions to uncover needs, or you might also include questions to evaluate different options for the wellness program. Also consider conducting interviews or focus groups with groups of employees.

The areas that a wellness program might cover include;

  • Work flexibility 
  • Physical activity
  • Nutrition
  • Smoking cessation
  • Alcohol consumption reduction
  • Sleep improvement
  • Stress management
  • Physical environment
  • Healthcare access
  • Social & emotional needs
  • Community service

4) Design the Wellness Program

So now it comes time to actually design your wellness program. This sounds like a big job as you probably have all kinds of ideas you’d like to incorporate, but in general, it’s best to keep the scope small and get started with something. Do your brainstorming and make sure everyone’s ideas are heard, then focus the discussions on the highest priority and easiest to implement ideas. It can help if you decide on a direction you’d like to take (eg a theme of the month), but don’t feel like you need to map out an entire year of initiatives. In fact, it’s best to remain agile and learn from each new initiative added so that the feedback can inform future initiatives.

The goal here is to design a program of wellness initiatives that are accessible and cover the needs of employees. 

It’s also important to take into account the company’s way of operating. A business that is completely remote will have different needs to one that is primarily office based, and different again to one where employees are spread across multiple physical sites. The size and stage of the company should also be factored into the thought process here.

5) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

With your Wellness Program ready to go, you now need to communicate it everywhere. Use different channels to ensure everyone is aware of the program. This might include chat programs, official announcements in company meetings or town halls, ensuring managers include it as an agenda item in team meetings, inclusions in company newsletters, explanatory emails, etc.

Communicate both the program details, but also the benefits of participation. You might also want to consider including incentives or some kind of gamification to motivate employees to participate.

This step is not a one-off item though, communication needs to be ongoing and everywhere (or relentless and surround sound, as USAA says about their own communications with workers). The goal is for employees to get the message that their organization cares about their health and wellbeing, everywhere they turn.

As part of the communication efforts, make sure that there is visible endorsement and participation by upper management as this is a powerful signal. You can also use your communication channels to celebrate the minor successes along the way.

Potential Components of an Employee Wellness Program

There is an endless list of possibilities to include in your wellness program, but to give you some ideas, we’ve put together this list of ideas…

  • Work Flexibility (this is often the most needed and appreciated area for many individuals)
    • Policies that give people more power over their schedules
    • Training sessions for managers and team leaders on how to discuss working patterns and flexibility needs with their team members in one-on-one meetings
    • Policies that allow for caring of dependents
  • Mental Health & Stress Management
    • Providing a confidential helpline and/or therapy sessions
    • Education program on stress management
    • Training for managers on how to talk with team members about stress management
    • Yoga or meditation classes
    • Access to meditation apps
    • Meditation challenge
  • Physical activity
    • Education session on the benefits of different types of exercise
    • Company-wide steps challenge, or make it team based
    • Online or group strength and/or cardio classes
    • A policy to reimburse or subsidized gym memberships or fitness equipment
  • Nutrition
    • Education session/s on healthy diets and the benefits
    • Healthy cooking lessons – online or in person
    • Healthy recipe exchange forum
    • Photos of meals 
    • Vegetable challenge (eg eat 5 servings a day)
    • Let’s cook together team activities
    • Providing catered meals
  • Smoking cessation
    • Education program
    • Subsidized quitting aids / programs
    • Employee support group
  • Alcohol consumption reduction
    • Education program
    • No-alcohol month challenge
    • Forum for employees sharing how they eliminate or reduce intake in specific situations
  • Sleep improvement
    • Education program
    • Sleep challenge with employees reporting and tracking their sleep (and subsequent feelings during the day)
  • Physical environment
    • Education program about ergonomics and office setup
    • Forum for sharing tips about how home offices are setup
    • For employees working from home, an allowance for them to invest in better chairs, screens or other equipment that would improve their working environment
    • Provision of in-office equipment – desks at different heights, different types of chairs, headphones, etc
    • In-office massage services
    • Focus on stretching routines with training and reminders
  • Healthcare access
    • Provision of health insurance or an allowance towards this
    • Preventative health checks
  • Social & emotional needs
    • Education program about the importance of connection
    • Emotional skills training
    • Challenge that incorporates social connections (eg clubs, reachouts, learning about co-workers or neighbors)
  • Community service
    • How I helped campaign
    • Policy to allow employees time for volunteering

Warnings when Implementing an Employee Wellness Program

There is no perfect design for a wellness program and it should be considered as a continuous learning process. However, there are some things to be wary of when thinking of the design…

No Focus on Action

Initiatives that simply report on employee health or engagement can be interesting and part of a wellness program, but the emphasis should be on things that will actually improve wellness (even if that can’t be measured). A walking program is better than a fitness test.

Thinking a Website is the Wellness Program

Health insurers can be quick to package in ‘wellness’ as part of their offering, and can include a nice employee website of information. But a pretty website alone will not move the needle. Wellness needs to involve cultural change and commitment at all levels.

Outsourcing Wellness

Embedding a culture of wellness needs to come from inside a company. Of course, it may be highly beneficial to bring in suppliers for specialist training or education, but don’t outsource the whole program. You can’t simply hire a vendor to ‘fix’ unhealthy employees.

Get Started with Your Workplace Wellness Program

As is said about many things, the best time to start your wellness program was probably 5 years ago. But the second-best time is right now. 

Even if you don’t feel qualified or know exactly what you’re doing, the sentiment of the direction you take the program will be appreciated by your workforce and is likely to have many positive flow-on effects. 

If you’re in doubt as to where to focus, be aware that the pandemic is causing a huge increase in mental health issues so this is probably a great area to start with. Increased stress and anxiety, loneliness, depression, and working from home sometimes leading to longer hours have all contributed to this. And even before the Covid pandemic, a study by Zapier showed that younger employees strongly believe that employers should have a mental health work policy in place. 

Whatever you start with, try to design your wellness program to appeal to the majority of your team, while being careful not to alienate others. Participation is the key to a successful program and building a culture of health and wellness should be the ultimate goal.


How to Create a Workplace Wellness Program

Category: Company CultureEmployee Management