Employee Wellness Programs: Does Size Matter?

By Robyn Jay-Bage

Bage - June 27I recently participated in a networking breakfast hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce. While the opportunity for a hot breakfast is always a reason to attend, the topic of discussion at this meeting especially sparked my interest: Employee Wellness Programs. I’ve always understood them as an economic imperative. An article earlier this year in the Huffington Post, The Value of Employee Wellness Programs by Kenneth Thorpe, underscores their value and cites examples illustrating hundreds of dollars in savings per employee in health care costs. Other sources, like this one in the Saint Louis Business Journal, discuss additional benefits such as increased employee engagement, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, reduced on-the-job injuries, and improved employee morale. I was excited to learn more about how I might offer these benefits to my employees.

The panels were comprised of executives who’d implemented wellness programs. After extolling the aforementioned financial benefits, these business leaders literally gushed with details about how—and how many—lives were saved.  I was overwhelmed. Intellectually, of course, it isn’t a big leap from the concept of “getting well” to the idea that “being well” prolongs life. But it took vicarious immersion in the experiences of my peers to feel the emotional connection between wellness programs and living longer. I heard story after story of people finding out during a free health screening they have hypertension, or someone finding out that his blood sugar was at a catastrophic level–only to have it return to normal after being given the opportunity for weight loss support and exercise.

A large part of the presentation, however, focused on features designed to encourage employee participation: State of the art wellness2employee fitness facilities. Free massages. Direct financial incentives, available to all who participate in the program (sometimes resulting in payments of hundreds of dollars per person). Employee sponsored meals. Family events. My excitement waned as I realized these awesome incentives were not feasible for my grant-funded, nonprofit organization.

Despite feeling discouraged, I continued to believe that offering a wellness program was the right thing to do, the ethical choice for an organization that cares about its employees. Determined to do what we could, my CFO and I began to research wellness programs. We learned that basic components include distribution of educational information, smoking cessation and weight-loss programs, periodic employee-focused health fairs, an employee assistance program for mental and emotional health needs, and a link to an exercise facility. We could do this. It would just take a little planning and creativity. So we got started.

We transformed a small conference room into a wellness center. One of my Directors put out a call to employees to donate used equipment, like jump ropes and exercise bands. Our awesome and generous health insurance agent heard of our goals and volunteered to help us. He connected us with a specialist in wellness programs. She offered her time, without cost to us, to help us set up the room. An employee certified to teach Yoga and colleagues dedicated to fitness stepped up to form a committee. Surveys went out to all employees for input and assistance.

In a few short weeks, our small wellness center will open. We have two treadmills, a stair stepper, and a recumbent bike—all donated. We have Wii Fitness, a large screen TV, and most importantly, a team that is excited to plan wellness events. In fact, next week they are hosting an agency Fun and Fitness walk along a river trail. Talk about benefits! My employees are already excited and actively engaged.

Size doesn’t matter when it comes to offering a wellness program, and neither do financial resources. What counts is intention, effort and shared participation. As for the financial benefits to the firm, those may come in time. Stay tuned.

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