How to Implement a Wellness Program

How to Implement a Wellness Program

January 1, 2013

Most of us know why we should implement a wellness program, but knowing where to start can be trickier. Here are some solid suggestions.

Answering the question, “Why should our company have an employee wellness program?” may not seem easy. Immediately, a welter of new questions arises about cost, results, time investment, and the speculation that the HR department, or company as a whole, will be seen as intrusive busybodies. These concerns have been addressed in Canadian context. Recent research demonstrates that an effective employee wellness program has a good return on investment (ROI). And there are good examples of simple, low-cost and, most of all, fun ways to engage employees in achieving better mental, physical and social health. In 2013, the question about a workplace wellness program is no longer “why,” but “when and how.”

The hardest part in creating a wellness program for your company is knowing where to start. Having solid facts, figures and information gathered from a variety of sources will help ensure your ROI is accurate and your wellness program is a success for all concerned.

Hallmark Canada recently implemented a wellness plan for its employees in the Aurora and Toronto areas. Mike Soehner, Director of HR for Employee Relations, explains: “Hallmark is a family owned business; a private company. There is a culture in place here that supports employee relations. We do employee engagement surveys and know people have concerns about well-being and the environment they are working in. We can gauge the success of some of the programs put in place by analyzing the results of the surveys.”

Linda Deeks, RN, MPH, COHN(C), CRSP, works in the occupational health department of Hallmark Canada. She explains more about Hallmark’s employee wellness program. “We have an employee assistance program with a confidential counselling service,” Deeks says. “It provides counselling at no cost to the employees. We get general reports that tell us how we are doing as compared to industry standards.”

The counselling service is one of the few aspects of the wellness program that Hallmark has chosen to make substantial cash investments in. Many of the other initiatives are low-cost. Hallmark began its wellness program in January 2012 with a new event, Burn-the-Bird. This two-week challenge was implemented to encourage employees to burn off the extra calories eaten over the holiday season. Everyone who participated had his or her name put into a draw and the winner got a $20 gift card. Employees asked to do it again in 2013.

“This sort of thing is becoming part of our culture,” says Soehner. “It gives people the opportunity to get away from the day-to-day grind.”

Hallmark has other unique ideas put in place for its wellness program. Recently, 97 employees divided into 23 teams for an eight-week challenge. Each team was asked to do an average of 30 minutes of activity per day or 150 minutes per person per week. If a team met the challenge, each person was given a chance to win a $20 gift card. Not only did the teams meet the challenge, they beat it every week.

Hallmark managers measured walking distances within the local vicinity, from the office to the coffee shop, for example. Employees would then know how far they’d walked in a week based on distances rather than being outfitted with pedometers. The next stage included an indoor walking track that was installed in an unused manufacturing area so employees could go for a quick ten-minute walk, without worrying about the weather. Also, the new yoga class offered during the lunch hour once a week is booked solid with a wait list.

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An important tool for Hallmark is its wellness intranet website. The site gives access to Health Canada, travel health information, all company activities, influenza vaccination campaigns and more. For those who prefer paper, Deeks puts out a bi-monthly newsletter with information on health and wellness complete with a cartoon, general info, and recipes. “I’m getting good feedback,” she says. “It shows they actually read it!”

Hallmark enlisted the help of two interns from a local college to come in and help implement the program. They also put on a wellness fair with vendors that included a Reiki master, nutritionist, occupational therapist, yoga instructor, heart and stroke rep, and a cancer society rep. “They all came for free,” explains Deeks. “It was over the lunch hour in the cafeteria. About 75% of employees working that day went down and talked to the different vendors.”

Hallmark knows it will be some time before it has substantiated evidence that the program worked. “We are getting subjective results now,” says Deeks. “Employees are enjoying it. The real objective measurements won’t be seen for three to five years.”

There are only a handful of studies out there that give quantifiable evidence about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to wellness programs. Michael Rouse, Strategy Professor, Richard Ivey School of Business, says the best way to calculate your ROI on a wellness program is to ensure it is built on a solid platform.

“Businesses need to discuss health issues with local health-care professionals in relation to the demographics of the workforce,” explains Rouse. He also notes that age should be included as a factor as young employees are absent five days per year while older employees lose an average of 11 days per year for health-related issues.

At the outset, program designers need to consult all employees, both union and non-union. They need to contact insurers to collate current company-wide insurable health care costs. Employee evaluations are valuable to help program designers decide which social and cultural improvements to make.

Decide which outcomes you want to measure: improving fitness, changes in BMI, changes in cholesterol, decreased drug costs, absenteeism, levels of satisfaction and overall health of the organization are but a few to consider.

“One factor many companies overlook is the cost of paying someone when they are not at work,” comments Rouse. “Look at real costs when factoring ROI. You may directly pay an employee $30 an hour, however, when everything is factored in, they are probably worth $40 to $100 an hour.”

Personal participation of the management team is a key variable when it comes to the effectiveness of wellness programs. It shows that leaders believe the program is so important they are doing it themselves.

Confidentiality is vital. From the very first sign-up through the entire program, every step must be anonymous so employees know there will be no discrimination based on questions answered or personal results from the program. Employees should do the survey on company time with time set aside for them to participate.

Catherine Connelly of DeGroote(McMaster) was the editor of the Sunlife/Buffett 2011 National Wellness survey. She advises that when putting together a wellness program, it is important to stay away from the one-size-fits-all approach.

“Every workplace is different and areas of your business are different. You need to think about the needs of the workers first, and then the company,” she says. “Why is the wellness program being implemented? Is it to reduce prescription drug costs? If so, you may want to look at nutrition programs. For absenteeism, look at HR policies like flex time and telecommuting. People often overlook the HR side, they just think about things like lunch and learn, or putting in a gym.” Connelly says that giving people schedule flexibility will help reduce stress. It can be as simple as allowing them to go to the gym in the morning or scheduling work around family commitments.

Once you have gathered your data and decided on expected outcomes, it’s time to start a pilot project with a control group. It is important the pilot project include a random sample group from all levels of health interest and the control group be made up of those same types of people.

Building teams from different parts of the organization is also important. People get to network within the company and it adds a social angle, which makes people more likely to stick to it. “If it’s good for employees, it’s good for business and good for the bottom line,” says Connelly.

Once you introduce a program, even a small one like flu shots, you need to do an assessment on employee awareness and participation, then look at any changes to the indicators. Maybe the flu shot didn’t reduce sickness absences, but it did increase employees’ perception that the company values their contribution and cares about their well-being.

With goals like reduced absenteeism, you may actually see an initial increase in absences after implementing a wellness program. Blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes — any chronic conditions that can be brought under control with lifestyle changes — may cause a short-term increase in absenteeism for doctor’s appointments. Consider all the variables before deciding if a part of your program is successful.

“All factors need to be monitored over a long period,” says Connelly. “There are earlier indicators, like employee satisfaction. Employee participation can be used as a proxy to see if it is a successful program. If employees are enjoying it, and it’s good for morale, that may be good enough.”

Rouse and Connelly agree that giving employees time to participate in the program is important. Wellness programs can be seen as an add-on to an already busy day and may add stress, instead of reducing it. Employers need to give employees as much control over their work environment as possible. Management and employees must work together as a team to create a successful outcome.

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