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employee wellness programsStrategic, well-designed employee wellness programs can result in significant financial benefits for organizations– such as lower health care costs, reduced absenteeism, higher productivity and even higher employee retention. Effective programs can also improve factors that are more difficult to measure, including employee morale, pride and commitment to the organization.

If you are thinking of starting a health initiative at your workplace or struggling to revitalize an existing one, you may ask: what makes one wellness plan succeed and another fall flat?

Harvard Business Review conducted a study that answers this question by boiling success down to six key components. Researchers examined previous studies, then did field studies with 10 organizations of varying sizes in different industries: Bitmore, Chevron, Comporium, Healthwise, H-E-B, Johnson & Johnson, Lowe’s, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Nelnet and SAS Institute.

The Six Pillars of Effective Employee Wellness Programs

1. Multilevel Leadership

A wellness plan is only as successful as its leadership; for it to get traction and make a lasting impression, it must have the support of everyone from middle management to the CEO. For example, when MD Anderson Cancer Center initiated its program, president John Mendelsohn took walks through the building with a wellness coach, interacting with employees along the way.

The study found that effective programs also include wellness program managers, experts who design, implement and measure comprehensive initiatives, and wellness ambassadors, volunteers who are available for mentoring, education and encouragement.

2. Alignment

Health and wellness initiatives should reflect an organization’s mission, values and goals and be incorporated as part of its day-to-day operation. They should support and complement business priorities. For example, 60 to 70 percent of jobs at Chevron are safety-sensitive, meaning that physical fitness is a top priority. Chevron created a strong wellness plan that included a cardiovascular health component, fitness centers, a 10K-a-day walking activity and injury prevention resources.

3. Scope, Relevance and Quality

It is not enough just to emphasize exercise in workplace wellness initiatives. It is important to care for the mental health of employees as well, since depression and stress and other issues can lead to lower productivity and absenteeism. Bitmore addresses mental health concerns by offering free, confidential nondenominational chaplain services 24 hours a day to help employees and their immediate families with problems including illness, divorce, death and grief and child rearing.

Successful employee wellness programs should also have high-quality standards and be able to be tailored to fit individual needs. Well-respected, well-designed plans can inspire employee pride and involvement, and programs that are fun encourage people to participate.

4. Accessibility

The bottom line is: a wellness plan must be affordable and convenient for employees to use it. Low- or no-cost services are very important, and on-site resources, such as fitness centers, health fairs and healthy food choices, make it easier for employees to participate.

5. Partnerships

Internal and external partnerships strengthen programs and make them more sustainable. For example, Comporium, a smaller organization, worked with the YMCA and a local medical practice to create a low-investment “metabolic makeover” for at-risk employees who were willing to participate.

6. Communications

Getting employees to take the initiative to change their lives and improve their health can be an uphill battle. It is essential to communicate the message in a positive, creative, sensitive and diverse way to get employee buy-in.

Employee wellness programs take time and money to establish and may not show results overnight, but the long-term results of a successful program are impressive.

The Harvard Business Review study found that since 1995, the percentage of Johnson & Johnson employees who are smokers has dropped by more than two-thirds. The percentage of those who have high blood pressure or who are physically inactive has decreased by more than 50 percent. Over the past decade, the company has saved $250 million in health care costs, and the return on investment was $2.71 for every dollar spent from 2002 to 2008.

Do you agree or disagree with HBR’s six pillars of an effective wellness plan? What do you think makes a successful program?

Learn more about EDSI’s Leading With Credibility course. 

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