Implementing a Workplace Wellness Program for Small Business

This is the second in a multi-part series about wellness programs in small businesses. This article looks at how to implement a successful workplace wellness program that your leaders support and which meets employees’ needs.

Wellness programs play a significant role in keeping health care affordable for small-business owners and their employees. However, in spite of the benefits of offering a wellness program, many small businesses become stymied and overwhelmed when they consider everything that’s involved in getting a program up and running. Many times they stop before they’ve even started.  In a survey of more than 1,000 small business owners conducted by the National Small Business Association (NSBA) in 2012, only 22% offered health and wellness programs.

But the lack of wellness programs in small businesses doesn’t mean these business owners aren’t concerned about employee health. In fact, it’s the opposite. According to the NSBA’s survey, nearly half (48 percent) of the businesses with two to nine employees said their employees take very few sick days; unfortunately, 57 percent of that same group said that’s because their employees work when they are sick. Of those surveyed, 37% of startups indicated that they experience an immediate decrease in productivity when employees are out sick.

Even more than large businesses, small businesses may be more at risk when the health and wellness of their employees suffers. Top well-being concerns facing workers in these small businesses were related to a variety of issues:

  • 42% high stress levels
  • 15% don’t know/unsure
  • 13% psychological well-being
  • 11% weight management
  • 11% alcohol or other drug habit
  • 9 % smoking

Source: National Small Business Association

As the data about well-being concerns illustrates, employees face a variety of health issues; just as each business is different, so are the needs of its employees. With this in mind, companies that are interested in offering a wellness program should take a customized approach to meet the unique needs of their staff and their business.

Here are five steps that will help you implement a wellness program for your small business:

  1. Gain commitment from the management team.

A wellness program’s success relies on a visible and demonstrated commitment from the management team. Leaders in an organization should champion and communicate about wellness initiatives from the very beginning.

“We believe that committing to corporate wellness is simply the right thing to do for our employees, and they have responded in big numbers,” said Cathy Pace, president & CEO of Allegacy Federal Credit Union in North Carolina.

“It’s an expectation that our employees remain dedicated to our mission and our members, and in return, we believe it is our duty to provide them with the tools, resources and environment that promotes a healthy life both physically and financially,” said Pace.

If your organizational culture centers around supporting your people, wellness programs are a natural fit. When leaders demonstrate their commitment and provide the resources to put a wellness program in place, it goes a long way to building employee engagement.

2. Assess employee interests and needs.

After you’ve gained support from the leadership team, you need to identify what employees are interested in, and what they need when it comes to wellness.

“A great way to gauge your people’s interest and readiness for any wellness program is to simply ask them,” said Tim Baker, CHRL, an independent Human Resources Consultant in Toronto, Canada.

You can approach gathering employee input in a variety of ways. You might choose to conduct an assessment that examines data such as absenteeism rates, medical claims, or prescription usage. Other options to consider involve facilitated focus groups, informal conversations, and surveys that will help inform decisions about what type of program you want to offer.

“Create a survey that presents a list of possible wellness programs. Allow employees to choose the ones that interest them. Be sure to leave an open-ended option for their input,” said Baker.

To accommodate the majority, Baker also recommends asking for information regarding when, where, and how employees want to participate in the program.


3. Establish a committee.

After you’ve gathered input from your employee base, establish a committee to lead the effort in developing and implementing the program. Be sure that the committee includes someone from human resources, a member of the executive management team, and a leader from the finance group. In addition to these key members, the committee should also include two or three employees who have a personal passion around wellness, or who have expressed their intention to use the program to its fullest.

This committee holds responsibility for understanding—and representing—the desires and interests of the employees, as well as the company. Without a keen awareness of what’s relevant to the workforce when it comes to wellness, the committee risks developing a program with which employees won’t engage. This workbook from the Worksite Wellness Toolkit provides templates and resources that will help set your wellness committee up for success.

While you may think you know what your employees want, without asking them and without the help of a committee, you’re less likely to hit the mark. Honest Tea, an organic tea company based in Maryland, found that out the hard way after they implemented a wellness program for their 40 employees.

As reported in a workplace health promotion guide published by the Transamerica Center for Health Studies, Honest Tea’s initial wellness program involved offering yoga and meditation classes twice a week. But they found that not many employees participated in the classes. That’s when the company decided to survey employees about their wellness program preferences.

The survey revealed that employees preferred to work out rather than do mild yoga. Based on the feedback they received, Honest Tea revamped their program. Instead of yoga, they offered more intense activities such as boot-camp workouts and rock climbing. Employee participation at these wellness events now exceeds 50%, illustrating the value of first finding out what interests your employees and then building a program to meet those needs.

4. Create a long-term strategy to achieve your program goals.

As with any initiative, you need to determine the goals of the wellness program and draft a long-term strategy to meet them. Your wellness committee, in partnership with the executive team, should confirm that the goals and long-term strategy align with your company’s mission and vision. This alignment is a critical piece in ensuring the longevity of the program.

Use the employee feedback you received, as well as other data that’s available to determine the wellness area(s) on which your program will focus.

“Randomly offering programs without data-based evidence can be a waste of an organization’s resources and budget,” said Baker. “Instead of guessing what your people need or want, listen to what they are saying. Even if they aren’t saying it out loud.”

As you determine your goals and strategy, contemplate what type of wellness program will have the most impact for your employees, and where you’ll be able to gain the most traction and interest in the program.

“For us, starting with physical activity was a great way to draw the attention of our staff and engage them in an area in which we always need encouragement,” said Garrick Throckmorton, assistant vice president, organization development at Allegacy Federal Credit Union.

Once you’ve determined the areas of focus for your wellness initiative:

  • Select solutions to meet the identified need(s (e.g., nutrition classes, smoking cessation incentives, gym memberships)
  • Find providers, partners, or tools (e.g., local hospitals, health coaches, membership clubs, activity tracking tools)
  • Invite a few employees to take part in a pilot program
  • Gather feedback from pilot participants
  • Make necessary adjustments before program launch

5. Invite all employees to participate in the wellness program.

After you’ve conducted a pilot and made any necessary adjustments, you’ll be ready to launch the program to the entire employee population. Use a communication plan to make sure that there’s a healthy amount of excitement and awareness about your company’s new health and wellness program. Schedule an all-employee meeting, post flyers, and send e-mails that explain the ways employees can participate.

Once you’ve launched your wellness program:

  • Put a mechanism in place to gather feedback
  • Stay focused on the long-term strategy
  • Monitor employee results

It takes time to develop new habits. Like employees, small businesses need to approach wellness for the long-term. It takes effort and time to get started, so make sure that you’re gathering feedback and monitoring employee results so that you can use what you learn to celebrate the program’s success as well as implement new offerings as needed.

The most effective wellness programs create a culture of health, while meeting both employee needs and company goals. These programs are most effective when they’re customized for your business and are designed based on employee feedback and input.

“Offering targeted wellness solutions can have a positive impact on performance, productivity and ultimately the business’ bottom line. The cost of offering these programs can greatly outweigh the cost of employee turnover when employees’ needs go unaddressed,” said Baker.

With an implementation plan in place, it’s clear that businesses of all sizes can create and sustain successful, comprehensive workplace health and wellness programs that deliver results—for employees as well as the bottom line.

images by:
Kalen Emsley

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