How to Build a Company Wellness Program

Increasingly, companies of all sizes are introducing wellness programs. And, in all likelihood, you wellness program is dramatically underperforming.

If not, why do you think that is?

So, odds are your office probably has a wellness program, but I’d bet most would have a hard time giving me specific and tangible examples of how it’s improved the wellbeing of employees and saved money on health care costs.

It’s about employee satisfaction and retention. But are people actually using those gym memberships or discounts? How many of your employees participate in your co-rec sports teams? And most importantly, how are you measuring the savings or benefits or “happiness” that results?

Most wellness programs are designed to follow a “set it and forget it” model, offering employees rewards for achieving health milestones like quitting cigarettes or achieving a healthier BMI without much regard for how they reach their goals and with little support.

By and large, this doesn’t work on its own. It ignores an essential element of making any corporate program successful – personal connection.

At its core, a wellness program is a tool to let your team know that they’re cared for. It’s an investment a company makes in its people, and the return is a healthier, more productive workforce. Building a winning program isn’t difficult, but you will get back from it what you put into it – as an organization and as an individual.

If you’re going to do it, you owe it to your team and the company to do it right. It may seem like I’m arguing two contradictory points, but your wellness program should be both individualized and scalable.

I’m not going to leave you with a cliffhanger and make you figure this out on your own. Just make sure your wellness program checks these nine boxes and you’re on your way to a functioning and sustainable program:


Giving someone the opportunity to take advantage of a gym membership isn’t actually giving them much at all, especially not the person who’s intimidated by the thought of being in the same room as the guys with 20-inch biceps, yelling and tossing weights. You have to meet them where they are.

Make your program accessible to everyone.

This doesn’t mean you have to start big, it just means that you have to start with the goal of making everyone in your office healthier, happier, and more productive. You can achieve this by thinking of options that have a low barrier to entry so that each team member can start with firm footing to pursue their journey toward wellness.

A quick, simple, and inexpensive way to do this is by scheduling time to practice good “desk hygiene”. That means taking frequent breaks to cut down on eye strain, eating lunch away from your computer, promoting good posture to cut down on back and neck strain, and any other activities that cut down on the effects of being sedentary.

2. Build On It

Now that you’ve given your team an easy way to get started, you need somewhere to go from here. If you consistently offer the same options, people are likely to get bored and abandon the program.

Build your program out to promote incremental success by mapping out a wellness journey. Create an archetype for each personality type in your office and mold a program to fit that pace.

The marathoner would then be on a different track than the person who casually exercises one day a week, yet both would remain engaged. However, be cautious of limiting the growth of your team members. Always encourage those who excel to help and mentor others while continuously raising the bar for those who’ve reached the pinnacle.

3. Gamify It

Offer varying levels of difficulty with rewards for reaching strategic milestones. In addition to being a good way to reach the skeptics in your office who may not be fully bought in yet, it gives your team an opportunity to tie their personal wellness to a tangible goal.

When you’re mapping out the wellness journey, make sure to answer the essential questions of “why, how, and when.” Encourage your team to share these goals when it makes sense to create a sense of accountability and hopefully stoking the flames of friendly interoffice competition.

For those who’d rather not share, give them the opportunity to compete with themselves. Personally, the greatest satisfaction I know is the feeling of being better than you were before.

4. Connect with Them

It’s easy to start a wellness program that you think will benefit your team, which is an easy mistake. It becomes a critical error in judgment if you start to believe that your employees don’t want to take more responsibility for their wellness.

The input of your team is a no-brainer in building out a program that’s meant to work for them. So, survey your team to find out what they’re most interested in and build their wellness journey around that.

You likely won’t be able to please everyone completely, but this is a simple method to finding a good starting point.

5. Let Them Own It

The role of the company is to facilitate. Once you’ve built out a program and it seems people are beginning to take to it, hand over the reins.

Let someone in each initiative have ownership of it and drive it forward democratically. Create a system to welcome those who’d like to join in and for reporting results, which can be as simple as attendance or participation. You can then use this metric to calculate Return on Investment (ROI) and Value of Investment (VOI) by tying those numbers to health costs and reduced absenteeism.

6. Get Buy-In from the Middle Out

You might think that it’s the executives that have the most influence at a company because they handle a great deal of the large decision making, but you’d be wrong. Middle managers are actually the most influential people in your organization, as they’re the ones interacting with employees on a day-to-day basis.

A good manager has the ability to engage an employee and keep them engaged. Managers are the disseminators of your company’s culture and it’s absolutely essential that they spread the right message.

For a wellness program, this means that for the majority of the team to get involved, managers need to step up to the plate and get involved too. Managers need to lead by example in order to show the rest of the team that wellness is a priority.

The same reason people stay late and don’t take days off (because they follow their manager’s example) can easily become the reason they are more productive during the workday and take advantage of personal time to rejuvenate.

7. Tie It to Intrinsic Motivators

This is likely the most difficult portion of building out any company wellness program. Financial incentives are good in the short-term but don’t work as well to make meaningful changes in unhealthy habits or instilling new habits.

Taking a play from the B.F. Skinner school of behaviorism, for the best chance at influencing long-term habit-forming behavior changes you should offer positive reinforcement. Turning a behavior into a habit is as simple as flipping the light switch from extrinsic motivations like money and swag to intrinsic motivations like the feeling of accomplishment or boost in self-esteem.

When someone reaches a goal, offer them praise beyond the extrinsic reward tied to the activity. Stretch that out to different intervals and it will help create enjoyability or positive associations with that activity, increasing the likelihood that it will be repeated and then become a habit.

Have fun with it! Find ways to celebrate milestones and use competition to give the winners bragging rights, which will help motivate others to reach the same heights.

8. Don’t Punish

While this should ring as common sense, penalizing someone that smokes or doesn’t maintain a BMI in the ideal range can create a sense of resentment and hostility in the workplace and is borderline discriminatory.

According to Dr. Gene Milbourn Jr., professor of management at the Robert G. Merrick School of Business, University of Baltimore, punishment in the workplace is often a double-edged sword that can produce potentially undesirable “side effects”. One of which is that punishment doesn’t promote desirable behaviors, it only seeks to stop undesirable behaviors – and even then the bad habits will continue when no one’s watching.

The stress, tension, and anxiety punishing someone creates can backfire and negatively affect work performance as retaliation. Punishment is a divider.

I can’t stress this enough, DON’T DO IT!

9. Don’t Give Up!

If your program doesn’t get the reception you want the first time around, don’t give up! Experiment with it until you get it right. There are plenty of employee wellness program ideas floating around that you can tailor to your company’s best fit.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but having a set of best practices outlined like the ones above will get you on the right path. Just make sure your program and your people are equipped with all of the tools they need to assess and create change for positive health outcomes.

Ready to start a wellness program at your company? Download your copy of the 9 Point Checklist to Build a Winning Employee Wellness Program now.

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