Understanding the Benefits of Employee Wellness Programs
Healthy businesses need healthy employees, and when companies prioritize employee well-being, its benefits are reflected in the well-being of the company. The two go hand-in-hand. 🤝
More companies than ever are implementing employee wellness programs, typically as an effort to reduce health insurance costs. In this article, we’ll dive into how these wellness programs benefit your bottom line—and everything above it.
How do we define employee wellness?
Bridget Juniper defines wellness as “a subjective, multi-element state that considers physical, material, social, emotional, developmental, and activity dimensions.”
In simpler terms: it’s a holistic way to look at employee health, that includes both physical and mental health. Employee wellness programs are not a one-size-fits-all—the success of your program hugely depends on how your business leaders would define employee wellness within the context of their unique workplace needs.
[Too many organizations] avoid asking themselves what they mean by well-being in the workplace in the first instance... there is a tendency to jump straight to enacting a menu of tactical initiatives that have only minimal relevance to the real wellness issues experienced by their workforces... It is not surprising that many become passing fads that eventually wither and die.
–Bridget Juniper, Work and Well-Being Ltd
Different workers have different needs. For example, a welder has considerable physical demands due to the nature of their tasks, so they’d benefit from a wellness initiative that includes more frequent work breaks or complimentary massages. A more sedentary office worker could enjoy a standing desk or a gym membership, whereas a paramedic might find regular counseling sessions helpful.
Employee wellness programs and the perks that come along with them seem like a new trend, but it’s actually a concept that’s been around for quite some time. Wellness programs began to emerge in the 1970s when corporations introduced exercise regimens as a way of improving the physical health of their employees. Over time, employers realized that employee wellness is affected by much more than just physical fitness, and they began to tackle mental and emotional needs as well.
That brings us to today, where it’s common for workplaces to offer a wide range of wellness options like subsidized transit passes, guided meditation sessions, healthy snacks, more flexible work schedules, and HRAs (Health Reimbursement Arrangements).
Need more ideas around wellness programs? Our friends at SnackNation compiled a list of more than 100 wellness program ideas that tackle a range of different employee wellness needs.
Improved employee wellness improves the bottom line
Now, let’s take a look at the real benefits of employee wellness programs for a company’s bottom line. For starters, wellness programs lead to fewer sick days taken at work. Supporting your employees’ wellness is tied to better communication and improved managerial transparency.
When employees feel that their wellness needs are a priority, their job satisfaction improves—a key factor in reducing turnover. Most of all, these programs have been proven to improve overall morale, resulting in increased productivity.
Wellness programs, including financial wellness programs, help increase productivity by reducing absenteeism, presenteeism, and by retaining employees.
–Dr. Martha Menard, behavioral health scientist and researcher
This is a win for the bottom line, but it’s not the only aspect of the company that improves as a result of employee wellness programs and wellness challenges.
Integrating traditional values with a modern mindset
Regarding the implementation and goals of wellness programs, Andrea Lane, Well-Being Strategist at MVP Healthcare, says:
The traditional view of employee wellness programs is centered around return on investment. The idea was that the company would end up paying less, the bottom line would be improved and the population would be healthier. Today, we understand that there are many more factors that impact wellbeing beyond just physical needs. Mental health and social needs are just as important as physical health; they both impact each other. So the focus has shifted from return on investment to the value of investment. Employees want and need to feel that their employer cares about them, and when they do feel this way, there’s a huge improvement in retention.
Visualizing wellness as a hierarchy of needs
Employees are motivated by different factors depending on where they fall on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s well-known hierarchy proposes that so-called “deficiency needs,” which include physiological needs, safety needs, a sense of love and belonging, and esteem, take precedence over all other needs.
Unmet deficiency needs lead to personal dissatisfaction and discomfort. Only when the four levels of deficiency needs are fulfilled will an individual feel motivated to seek out the higher level needs of esteem and self-actualization.
Because lower level needs must first be met before higher level needs become salient, wellness programs ought to be geared towards meeting those lower level needs first, so that employees will then become motivated to seek out higher levels of personal well-being.
Taking a look at the graphic below, you can see how a program that provides nutritious meals for employees appeals to the lower-level (physiological) needs, while a personal development class addresses esteem or self-actualization.
Sitting on top of the hierarchy are self-actualization needs—the crown jewel of human motivation. Being motivated by self-actualization means wanting to fulfill our highest potential. Self-actualization is the peak of the pyramid, the point to which we want our employees to climb.
Putting wellness theories into practice
A company can help employees meet safety needs in a variety of ways, including making the workplace psychologically safe as well as physically safe.
Psychological safety is an essential element that fosters optimal personal and interpersonal functioning among employees. For example, if a person does not feel psychologically safe in a relationship, they can feel defensive, which can also constrict or censor their self-expression. Conversely, when a person feels psychologically safe, they’re able to take risks, express ideas that are off the beaten path, and exercise their creativity.
Facilitating an environment that encourages open, non-hostile communication and feedback has a huge impact to an employee’s sense of psychological safety. Companies that place a high priority on psychology safety have employees that feel comfortable in their workplace, assured of the value of their role, and are more likely to stick around.
What would a program that addresses psychological safety look like in practice? Check out Bonusly! 👋
Bonusly's peer-to-peer recognition program encourages employees to treat one another mutual respect and appreciation. In turn, inter-employee relationships and overall morale are improved, which has been proven to benefit companies in numerous ways in the long run.
Remember that the purpose of recognition is to drive greater levels of 'discretionary effort.’ Such discretionary effort comes when we, as people, feel inspired to do more.
–Josh Bersin, Contributor at Forbes
Josh Bersin at Forbes defines “discretionary effort” as the extra motivation we feel when we are inspired to go the second mile in our work. Looking back at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can see that increased discretionary effort falls in line with the concepts of belonging and esteem. A peer recognition program can help with each of these social and psychological needs, thus improving wellness at work and at home.
The impact of wellness on company culture and beyond
A 2013 study by Population Health Management found that companies with successful wellness programs not only encouraged employee participation, but also emphasized the concept of wellness as an integral part of their company’s culture. This finding implies that while the financial benefits of healthy employees are undoubtedly a plus, it’s important for companies to treat their employees’ wellness needs as a top priority.
“When people are healthier, they’re able to actually be present at work; their attention and productivity improves. This leads to a happier, more productive population with not just improved attendance but people who are refreshed and excited to work for their companies.”
–Andrea Lane, Well-Being Strategist at MVP Healthcare
Aside from the economic rewards of putting employee wellness at the top of a company’s priority list, these initiatives contribute to the quality of life for individuals and to the well-being of society at large. Wellness in the workplace has a ripple effect into employees’ personal lives: healthier employees are also healthier citizens, who can more actively participate in and contribute to their communities.
Employee wellness just feels good—for everyone involved. For more ways to engage employees and build strong company cultures, check out our latest guide:
How do you approach wellness in your life? Are there any wellness initiatives at your company that makes your workday better?
Originally published on May 10, 2019 → Last updated March 2, 2022