5 Common Mistakes Employers Make in Designing Wellness Programs – And How to Avoid Them

Posted November 18, 2018

More employers are turning to workplace wellness programs to help control employee benefits costs and as an additional benefit to help attract and retain top employees. Industry research suggests that such investments can pay off handsomely for employers – but only if organizations are smart about how they execute their wellness initiatives.

Here are five common mistakes that employers make when establishing and managing their wellness programs and offers expert advice on creating and implementing programs that work.

1. Starting Without a Plan

You can’t expect to accomplish much with any major initiative if you start without first laying out a plan of action.

“One of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen in corporate wellness initiatives (and one reason that many of them fail,) is that not enough time is spent in planning,” says Carol Nave, a certified fitness trainer with and owner-operator at X Factor Fitness Solutions. “In the name of urgency leaders rush into implementing programs in hopes of capturing the opportunity that lies in the cost savings of having healthier employees.”

You must figure out how a new wellness initiative will fit in with your overall benefits plan and develop a strategy to explain the connection to employees, according to human resources organization ERC.

Part of that is deciding what type of ROI you want to see from the program, according to Debra Wein, founder of Wellness Workdays, and Courtney Hernandez, wellness representative at MIIA. It could be that you want to cut health insurance costs by developing healthier employees or that you want to boost retention by offering a benefit your workers want.

The plan should not just span a fiscal year, but should include ideas and goals for several years to come, say Wein and Hernandez.

If you’re having trouble coming up with a plan, consider hiring a consultant to help you, says David Hunnicutt, CEO of The Wellness Council of America. They can help you develop a roadmap that you can use along the way.

2. Allocating an Insufficient Budget

A successful wellness program – like any workplace initiative – doesn’t happen for free.

“A wellness initiative can be a major undertaking and adequate funding, staffing, and resources are all critical to a successful program,” according to ERC. “It’s unlikely that you will be able to see any meaningful results without investing money or resources into a wellness initiative.”

It is possible to get some bargains in your wellness program, but you have to be mindful about doing so.

“You can certainly engage local fitness centers and other health professionals in the area, but remember that these professionals need to get something out of the exchange as well,” say Wein and Hernandez. “They may agree to present a free seminar with the expectation that they will have a captive audience they can promote their services to.”

3. Failing to Win Support from Senior Management

The CEO sets the tone for a company’s culture and, along with other members of the C-suite, conveys what is important to the organization. It’s vital that the C-suite actively supports any wellness initiative the company undertakes.

Don’t confuse approving budget requests with real support, experts say. Throwing money at the effort isn’t enough. Employees need to see the company’s leaders pushing for and participating in the program, say Wein and Hernandez.

“If the CEO makes time for exercise, for instance, employees will feel less self-conscious about taking a fitness break,” say Leonard L. Berry, distinguished professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, and Ann M. Mirabito, marketing professor at Baylor University, and MD Anderson Cancer Center wellness officer William B. Baun.

Management’s participation also sends the message that the wellness program is not just a fad that will soon pass. If employees see that the program is there to stay, they may be more willing to invest their time and effort in it.

4. Using a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Companies are made up of a diverse mix of people and you can’t expect to serve all – or even most – of them with a limited program that tries to get everyone participating in a limited list of activities.

“No two employees have the same body, strength, or motivation and likewise not all employees need the same type of help with wellness,” according to ERC. “Some may need assistance with nutrition and others with fitness. Even within these buckets, employees will vary in terms of their level of fitness/wellness.”

For example, a discounted gym membership is great for an employee who likes going to the gym, but not much motivation for one who hates it, say Wein and Hernandez. Likewise, a walking program is great for employees who have little or no experience with exercise of any sort, but it’s not going to be very appealing to those who already have a workout routine that involves more intense activities.

“Offering a variety of programs is important,” say Wein and Hernandez. “It is unlikely that you will ever reach 100% participation in your wellness program, but you are more likely to get good participation by offering activities that appeal to different people.”

It’s also important to remember that wellness isn’t only about fitness and healthy eating. A comprehensive approach contains a variety of programs to help with issues such as stress management and emotional wellness. It also promotes healthy habits such as not smoking, getting preventive screenings and raising a healthy family.

5. Not Measuring ROI

In the planning stage of a new wellness initiative, you establish a set of goals for the program – but those goals mean nothing if you aren’t measuring, tracking and evaluating your progress along the way.

In ADP Research Institute’s HR/Benefits Survey on Wellness, most large and mid-sized U.S. companies reported that their wellness programs met or exceeded company leaders’ expectations of cutting health care costs. Still, more than 60% of companies that have wellness programs said they don’t measure ROI.

“To measure ROI, you must begin by collecting baseline data on the population, or the members of your organization, and monitor data measures periodically to assess progress,” says Anne Marie Ludovici-Connolly, wellness author, consultant and speaker.

“At the very least, you should be tracking participation,” say Wein and Hernandez. “If at all possible, it’s best to measure and track verifiable results. This can be done with technology such as scales that upload to an online personal dashboard for a weight management program to track weight loss, and accelerometers that track regular exercise patterns, or through tracking unique participants in a screening program from year to year.”

However, tracking and rewarding participation may not be enough, according to a report from Aon Hewitt.

“Programs and tools like HRQs [health risk questionnaire] and biometric screenings can make employees more aware of their health status and of the opportunities to improve their health, but alone they won’t move the needle when it comes to health improvement and mitigating cost," says Jim Winkler, global chief innovation officer for Aon Health at Aon Hewitt. “Incentives solely tied to participation tend to become entitlement programs, with employees expecting to be rewarded without any sense of accountability for better health. To truly impact employee behavior change, more and more organizations realize they need to closely tie rewards to outcomes and better results rather than just enrollment.”

Aon Hewitt found that more employers are beginning to link incentives to a result, as opposed to simply participating in a program. Of companies that offer incentives, 58% offer some form of incentive for completing lifestyle modification programs, such as quitting smoking or losing weight. About one-quarter offer incentives for progress or attainment made towards meeting acceptable ranges for biometric measures such as blood pressure, body mass index, blood sugar and cholesterol.

"Employers know that 8 health behaviors, including risks such as lack of physical activity and failure to complete recommended preventive screenings, drive 15 chronic conditions that lead to higher medical costs and increased absence from work,” said Stephanie Pronk, clinical health improvement leader for health and benefits at Aon Hewitt. “An effective incentive strategy rewarding those who take action to improve their health is fundamental for improving health and reducing cost.”


Wellness initiatives play an increasingly important role in controlling benefits costs at many employers. Such programs have moved beyond being a mere fad or an experiment to a widely accepted practice at top employers. They can do more than save money on health care premiums – they can also contribute toward workers’ sense of well-being and loyalty toward their employer.

If you avoid the most common mistakes, you’ll be well on your way to creating a wellness program that your workers and your CEO will love.