From on-demand fitness apps to vegan-friendly fast food, staying healthy is not only convenient — it’s also cool. Wellness isn’t just booming for superficial reasons, either. More people are realizing that a sound body and mind can make you happier and more productive at work, and small businesses around the world are taking note.
But what exactly does it take to make your employees healthier? Why are workplace wellness plans important now? Here’s why a healthy workplace matters and how small businesses in any industry can create programs that improve employee wellbeing.
Investing in a workplace wellness plan may seem like a risk for small business owners, especially if they feel the results aren’t quantifiable or certain. Fortunately, a growing body of research consistency concludes that wellness initiatives are effective both at making people healthier and at improving a company’s bottom line.
According to research in Rand Health Quarterly, workplace wellness programs have been shown to reduce risk factors for lifestyle-related diseases. For example, wellness education can effectively intervene in unhealthy behavior to reduce or eliminate instances of smoking, obesity, and sedentary living. By educating people on how to eat healthier and move more often, workplace wellness initiatives play a direct role in reducing lifestyle-related premature death rates in the United States.
Healthier employees who live longer also take less time off work and spend less money on employer-sponsored healthcare, according to the Winning with Wellness report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Another health study from Harvard suggests that the money invested in wellness plans saves more money in the long run. “We found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent,” said the study’s authors.
Effective workplace wellness initiatives don’t stop at the gym — incorporating mental health support also keeps employees positive, present, and productive. Specifically, productivity loss, absenteeism, job abandonment, and higher turnover rates were all linked to mental health struggles like depression and anxiety, according to Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace: A Handbook for Organizations and Clinicians. Specifically, employees struggling with depression are more likely to miss work more often than employees in good mental health.
Additional research shows that supporting employee’s mental wellbeing can improve how they feel and perform at work. One study found that 86% of employees treated for depression improved their work performance after receiving counseling or other support. Additional findings show that depression treatment can cut instances of absenteeism and presenteeism by half.
This research demonstrates that workplace wellness programs play a crucial role in helping employees get healthier, happier, and more productive both personally and professionally.
When most people think of workplace wellness, they imagine gym memberships and bowls of office fruit. But today’s most effective workplace wellness plans extend far deeper into both mind and body. Here’s what the experts say about creating and implementing a wellness plan your employees love.
Today’s employees aren’t as excited by the average big box gym membership. To avoid pouring money into something that employees won’t use, it’s important to do your research. According to Serena Scanzillo, Founder of the SerenaFit Virtual Training Studio, small business owners implementing wellness programs should become educated fitness goers.
It’s important to research wellness offerings in your area and try the latest trends in health and fitness. Think about expanding the limits of corporate wellness to offer fresh, new approaches that will keep employees engaged. “Getting creative about the offerings is always a plus. Think cooking classes, discounts on private training or access to wellness resorts and retreats,” says Scanzillo.
This is also an opportunity to create community and dialogue around health-related activities. For example, you might plan a yearly wellness retreat in the mountains. Here, employees could strengthen interpersonal bonds while engaging in physical activities together, like hiking and yoga. At the same time, unplugging from technology and being in a relaxing natural setting can foster mindfulness and stress relief.
Scanzillo adds that there are a multitude of ways business owners can encourage healthy living beyond offering access to physical workouts. Aside from yoga, HIIT, running clubs and strength training, a few ideas include:
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to nutrition, fitness, and staying healthy. That’s why, after you’ve researched engaging and exciting wellness options, it’s important to conduct a survey. This will help you gauge which programs the majority of your employees are interested in before implementing anything. Give options for methods you’ve researched, but also provide space for employees to write their own suggestions.
Some of the most common health risks are those correlated with lifestyle, including diabetes, hypertension, and stress. These conditions are also the easiest to remedy and prevent. As pointed out by Abacus Health Solutions, which implements incentive-based workplace wellness plans, employers can coordinate with healthcare providers to encourage health-related actions. For example, Abacus’ Healthy Heart Healthy Weight program encourages employees to have a yearly preventive care visit, complete recommended preventive screenings, or take steps towards a healthy body mass index.
Rewards and incentives can also motivate employees to make healthy lifestyle changes. Some employers offer cash incentives and bonuses to workers who effectively complete a wellness regimen. Yet, studies show that gift cards are actually more motivating than cash alone. Researchers from Brigham Young University tracked people in a wellness program who were incentivized either by cash, gift cards, or material goods. People who chose the gift card as a reward were 25% more likely to complete a wellness challenge.
Additional incentive ideas include:
Employees should be given multiple options for which incentive they’d like to work for to foster genuine motivation.Emphasize Balance and RecoveryA program that’s too demanding can intimidate some employees from the very beginning — especially those who are new to fitness and healthy living. That’s why it’s important to create a fitness plan that emphasizes a healthy balance between working out and resting up.
Billy Goldberg, Principal at The Buckeye Group, says that it’s important to provide employees with effective reset experiences that emphasize the importance of recovery in a wellness routine. “Stretching and reconnecting to your body helps to decrease anxiety and delivers immediate pain relief. As a regular part of your wellness culture, a detox protocol works in under 30-minutes to release contraction and reduce pain all while raising the good vibes in the office.”
Whether you incorporate daily stretching into your office routine or your employ a mobile reset experience to visit three times a week, consider how you can help employees de-stress and decompress on a regular basis.
A lasting workplace wellness program also offers tangible tools and tips for life beyond the office. In other words, wellness should equip people with the knowledge and practices they need to live healthier at home, says corporate yoga instructor Brendon Payne, E-RYT.
He translates yoga into everyday life to help employees realize its benefits are much more than physical. When guiding students into Warrior II pose, for example, he invites them to make adjustments. Then he connects this to the real world. “Just like in life, you always have time to make adjustments. You’re not stuck, you can move over, you can get out of it altogether.”
This is an example of helpful advice that students can return to both in their yoga practice and in their everyday life, especially during unexpected or stressful events. Providing free educational material is another way to equip employees with tools for wellbeing. For example, you might offer healthy cookbooks, a nutrition documentary screening, or access to a library of books on self-development, routine-building, and personal health and wellness.
Creating options for off-site work is important for helping employees take care of their mental health. According to University of Michigan professors Dr. Worline and Dr. Jane Dutton, giving employees more choice around where and when they can complete their work allows them to adapt to mental health challenges and other daily stressors. Additionally, employers should define clear policies for flexible work, including when and how to take time off to manage mental health challenges.
Moreover, employers can do their part by showing vulnerability around mental health. This might look like opening up about a personal challenge or even taking responsibility for a project that failed, says journalist Charlotte Lieberman. She points to the work of Dr. Brené Brown, whose research shows the connection between vulnerability and human connection. Small business owners who are honest and open about all challenges give employees permission to do the same. This creates a more connected workplace where employees feel safe expressing their own self-care and mental health needs.
There’s no denying that healthy employees are happy employees. Yet standard gym memberships simply aren’t enough to motivate and inspire employees in a world where wellness is constantly innovating. Here’s what to keep in mind when starting a wellness program for your small business:
Lastly, remember that wellness programs are about living a more whole and enjoyable life. Opt for programs, incentives, and routines that foster community and promote positivity, and you’ll likely get more than you bargained for.
Michelle Polizzi is a freelance writer and editor with over 5 years of experience. When she isn't busy writing or researching, you can find her doing yoga, enjoying the outdoors, or exploring a new corner of the world.