Encourage Employee Participation in Your Wellness Programs

Posted September 1, 2018

Do you offer a wellness program as one of your organization’s employee benefits?

According to the RAND Workplace Wellness Employer Survey, about half of all U.S. employers offer some kind of wellness program. It’s not a surprise; encouraging your employees to participate in a company-sponsored wellness program can pay off. The survey found 61 percent of employers reported decreased medical costs as a result of employee participation in wellness programs, while 78 percent reported reduced absenteeism and 80 percent said productivity increased.

Getting employees to participate can be a challenge, but it’s worth it.

Know the Rules

Under the Affordable Care Act, there are new incentives for outcomes-based programs. The departments of Health and Human Services, and Labor and Treasury have put together regulations for these programs. They include:

  • Eligible employees must be given the opportunity to qualify for the incentive at least once a year.
  • The reward cannot be more than 30 percent of the employee-only coverage cost of the plan, or 50 percent if the program aims to prevent or reduce tobacco use.
  • The incentive must be available to everyone. An alternative standard or waiver must be available for people who have a medical condition that makes it unreasonably difficult for them to reach the standard.
  • The program must be designed to promote health or prevent disease.
  • The program must disclose all the terms and availability of alternative standards and waivers.

Under the ACA, additional initiatives have been created to assist small businesses in overcoming the challenge of costs associated with creating wellness programs, says Limelight Health CEO Jason T. Andrew. Wellness grants, the CDC Health Toolkit and community partnerships with the National Business Coalition on Health all provide guidance for employers looking to build wellness programs consistent with ACA standards. According to Andrew, outcomes-based wellness programs can include:

  • Health risk assessments.
  • Biometric, blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol, vision, cancer and other health screenings.
  • Contests (within companies and with other small employers in the community).
  • Subsidized gym memberships.
  • Incentives provided for commuting by walking or bicycling to work.
  • Offering healthy choices in office cafeterias, vending machines, and at meetings.
  • Incentives for reaching goals or for participation in the workplace program.
  • Earning points, rewards or prizes for reaching targets.
  • Using available resources within the community (such as AHA, ACS, YMCAs).
  • Brown-bag lunches with health-related speakers, such as a nutritionist, nurse or trainer.
  • On-site flu shots.
  • Health fairs.
  • Smoking cessation programs.
  • Creating smoke-free environments.
  • Nutrition counseling.

Your wellness program may include other offerings, too. Just keep in mind that incentives for outcomes-based programs have specific requirements, so you must ensure yours are valid.

Create a Culture of Wellness

An overall culture of wellness will make it clear to employees that there are big advantages to getting healthy. But what does a culture of wellness look like? What does it take to build one?

“Showing them the advantages can help,” Andrew says. “By implementing effective workplace wellness programs, employers can lower health care expenditures associated with chronic illness, boost productivity, reduce health risks and improve their employees’ quality of life.”

And it’s important to remember that any size company can build a culture of wellness. In fact, Andrew says, “small business employers may be uniquely situated to motivate employees to make critical lifestyle changes due to the close-knit nature of a smaller work environment.”

Standard Process Creates Its Own Wellness Program

When leaders at health food supplement maker Standard Process wanted to establish a wellness program at its facility, they couldn’t find one they felt would fit, so they built their own. Then they spun it off as its own company, Cultivate, which provides wellness solutions for other companies. Cultivate President Jerry Curtin says the company started by embracing the belief that “a business isn’t healthy until its employees are healthy,” and hired a wellness manager with the academic credentials and interpersonal skills to relate to a wide array of employee roles, from frontline to front office.

The team wanted to make its efforts sustainable, so it started out slowly, with on-site, chiropractic-led activities centered on nutrition, education and fitness, Curtin says. “Our initial goal focused on gaining the confidence of 30 percent of our workforce — a significant enough part of the population to validate the required investment,” he said. “As we built out programs people wanted, we also required each program to be built in measurements of success.” The company now offers wellness efforts such as chiropractic services, nutritional consultations, a whole-foods cafeteria, on-site daycare and fitness facility.

The company also has a wellness council, composed of a cross-section of employees, that considers new ideas, brings ideas to the core team and collects feedback. Curtin says the organization then applies Six Sigma methodologies to make sure any changes will yield the desired outcomes.

Klein Steel Works on Mental, Physical and Financial Wellness

Klein Steel is a mid-sized, steel service center with customers nationwide. It has made wellness a component of fitness and health, including emotional, financial and spiritual well-being, says Patrick DiLaura, Klein’s chief talent officer.

The company has taken several steps to build a culture of health:

  • Leaders educate employees through weekly emails — Wellness Wednesdays and Financial Fridays — and communication boards in the plant with topics including diet, supplements, sleep and other healthy habits, basic budgeting and investing for the future.
  • The company provides personalized health information through biometric screenings and a health risk appraisal to identify organization-wide behaviors and health risks that need attention.
  • Based on the organization and team members’ needs, the company plans programming and benefits such as a blood pressure challenge or long-term care insurance.

In addition, DiLaura says the company is rolling out an updated charitable giving policy to encourage the company’s continued support in the community.

Use Gamification Tactics

Advances in apps and online trackers can make it fun for employees to take part in wellness programs and boost participation. Whether it’s a smartphone app or an online fitness tracker, games and friendly competition can get employees interested in participating in your company’s wellness efforts.

Nate Walkingshaw, vice president of Tanner Labs, says that to cause real change in the workplace, companies must find the right way to motivate their employees to focus on wellness and make the benefits outweigh the costs. “Gamification of wellness programs can create a sense of community when everyone is focused on improving themselves,” he says.

Wearable devices, for example, can track biometric data or the number of steps taken in a day and upload it automatically to a website where employees can monitor and compare their progress. “There are many corporations turning to wearable devices when implementing a wellness program in response to the research pointing to their motivational properties when it comes to health and fitness,” Walkingshaw says. “When enough people in an organization are tracking their activity levels, sleep patterns and calorie intake, they will want to share their accomplishments and struggles with those around them.”

Advances in technology make it possible to track progress, rewards and management, Andrew says. The lower cost of apps in particular makes it easy for almost anyone to use a calorie calculator or exercise log to track what someone has eaten or how many steps they’ve taken in a day.

Communicate and Reward

According to a Department of Labor study on wellness, effective communication is one of the most important tools in promoting wellness program participation. Employees won’t participate if they don’t know about your wellness program. Getting the word out and building understanding is essential to ensuring people take advantage of the wellness program.

“Ongoing, regular communications is essential to engagement,” says Curtin, who adds that Cultivate uses a variety of tools to reach employees. “We post fliers, distribute pamphlets, distribute electronic newsletters monthly and in-house advertising campaigns run on our electronic reader boards throughout our facilities.”

In addition, wellness is a focal point of every all-employee meeting. “Leadership demonstrates commitment through words and action to the importance of wellness to all of our prosperity and health,” he says. Incentives can be part of your communication efforts, too. While good health is its own reward, incentives can help boost participation in wellness programs. The RAND wellness study found 69 percent of employers use incentives to encourage participation.

At Cultivate, incentives include regular doctor visits, time off to do community service and a monthly stipend for nutritional supplements. But offering a program that employees find valuable is also a key part of getting them to participate. “First and foremost, our wellness offers are on-site and easy to access,” Curtin says.

The company has a 97 percent participation rate in its wellness efforts and that’s turned into real results. Curtin says average employee tenure is now longer than 14 years, the company’s absentee rate is below 2 percent, employee turnover is lower than 4 percent, claim dollars per employee have been reduced and spousal claims are down 28 percent.


Getting your employees to participate in an employee wellness program may be hard at first, but over time it will pay off. Using a consistent approach that demonstrates and communicates the benefits of a culture of wellness, you can increase employee participation for everyone’s benefit.