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Top 10 Wellness Program Mistakes


The coronavirus pandemic how shown us that prioritizing employee health is more important than ever. Whether you are planning to start a program to improve the well-being of your workforce or want to enhance your existing program to address today’s new environment, it’s important to avoid these ten mistakes.


Failure to Plan

You wouldn’t roll out a new benefits package without a strategic plan in place, and worksite wellness programs should not be any different. First and foremost, you need to think about the overall goals you would like to achieve. Certainly, seeing a high return on investment (ROI) is ideal, but it can take years to see any ROI and it may not even be a realistic option given the scope of your program. Perhaps you want to set your sights in year one on a certain level of participation (i.e., 40% participation) with an emphasis on behavior change so you begin to build a workforce that can thrive during the current pandemic. A goal for year two may be 60% participation with a continued emphasis on healthy behavior change. Once you have your goals in place, you can begin to think about gathering data and the strategy and programming you will need to reach these goals.


Not Gathering Enough Data

To develop a successful wellness program, you need to know two things: What areas of wellness your employees are interested in and what health risks are most prevalent in your employee population. Then you need to find a way to marry the two. Asking your employees to take a needs and interest survey is a good way to gauge their interest level in various aspects of wellness. You may want to focus on fitness, but they may be more interested in programs on nutrition and stress management. It is important to try to meet employees where they are; otherwise, you will be wasting your resources on a program that will generate little participation. It is also a good idea to determine how your employees would like to learn about wellness—virtual programs, recorded webinars, a technology portal, newsletters, etc.


The other piece of the puzzle is asking employees (and, often, offering them incentives) to participate in screenings and take an online personal health assessment (PHA). Once you have the aggregate data from the screenings and/or PHA, you can see which health risks your employees have. For example, the screenings may tell you that 60% of your employees who were screened have high blood pressure. The PHA may reveal that your employees’ top health concern is dealing with stress. You don’t need a Ph.D. to figure out that a program dealing with stress might be well-received by employees and also show some cost avoidance if this program helps employees lower their blood pressure. Given that employees with high blood pressure are also at greater risk of adverse coronavirus symptoms, this will also meet the goal of developing a workforce that is healthy enough to withstand the coronavirus pandemic.


Technology Is Not Enough

Offering an off-the-shelf, self-directed technology solution is not enough. Too often, employers purchase a technology solution that is not customized to their organization and simply let employees know it exists. Unfortunately, it is not enough to call this a wellness program. Technology is a great addition to your wellness program, and in the age of COVID-19 it is a necessity; however, any technology you purchase should be customized and branded for your organization and offer both virtual programming and self-directed resources. When COVID-19 restrictions are eased, employers should provide onsite programming as well as virtual programming.


Target Only High-Risk Employees

With the coronavirus disproportionately affecting individuals with conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, it would be easy to think that your wellness program should focus on these employees, but that would be shortsighted. While it is very important to try to get employees with these risk factors involved, you need to run a wellness program that engages ALL of your employees. It is just as important to keep the healthy people healthy as it is to improve the health of those with risk factors.


Usually, as we age, our health declines. We become more sedentary, we gain weight, our blood pressure increases, etc. So the employees who were low-risk at the age of 35 may naturally move to medium-risk by the age of 45. If you have a comprehensive wellness program in place that addresses the needs of both healthy and unhealthy employees, you may be able to keep the low-risk employees in the low-risk category. Also, a comprehensive wellness program should help move people from the medium-risk category to the low-risk category—and, of course, strive to move the high-risk folks to medium- or low-risk. This means offering a variety of programs that appeal to your entire employee base.


One Size Fits All

It never works. We don’t all wear the same size T-shirt; we are not all going to be interested in the same types of wellness activities. A walking program will likely appeal to people who are currently sedentary or not very active, but what about the employee who runs marathons but is working a 12-hour day? He or she might benefit from a work/life balance workshop. Likewise, some employees may be interested in learning more about nutrition while others may need help with financial fitness.


Offering a variety of programs is important. 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. And remember, wellness isn’t just about exercise and nutrition; it is also about handling stress, mental and emotional wellness, having a healthy family, getting the appropriate preventive screenings and more. Don’t get stuck in a wellness rut by offering the same programs every year without any other alternatives or any kind of variety.


No Incentives

It would be nice to think that all employees would participate in your wellness program for their own health and well-being, but that is just not human nature. Some of us do better with incentives. There has been extensive research showing that if you want employees to participate in your program you need to offer the “carrot.”


The incentives can be large—some employers offer substantially lower insurance premiums for employees who participate in a minimum number of wellness program activities. The incentives can be small—a chance to win one of three $25 gift cards for those who attend a screening and complete a PHA. The incentives can be unique—a paid day off for the winner of the wellness challenge. But whatever you choose and whatever fits with your company culture, make sure you build incentives into the budget for your wellness program.


No Budget

You must have a budget. You can’t get something for nothing. You can certainly engage local fitness experts and other health professionals in your area, but remember that these professionals need to get something out of the exchange as well. They may agree to present a “free” virtual seminar with the expectation that they will have a captive audience they can promote their services to.


Lack of C-Level Support

Management needs to not only buy into the wellness program (i.e., approve your budget!), but to participate, as well. The most successful wellness programs are ones where the C-level executives are visible participants and proponents of the wellness programs. It sends a message that this is something that is important for the entire organization and not just a passing phase.


No Tracking

It’s hard to measure the success of a program if you aren’t tracking anything. At the very least, you should be tracking participation. You want to see how many employees participated in each program and how many total employees participated in at least one or multiple aspects of the program.


If at all possible, it is best to measure and track verifiable results. This can be done through a wellness technology portal where employees can log and track data and wellness providers can run aggregate reports (no personal identifiers are provided) about wellness initiatives.


No Future Direction

A wellness program needs attention. Once you have a successful Year One behind you, it can be easy to think that the program will just run itself. Not true! You must continue to evaluate your program, reevaluate your goals, keep a pulse on your employees’ needs and interests, and offer new and exciting programs.


These are just some of the pitfalls individuals face when trying to initiate a successful wellness program. Consider speaking with experts in the field for guidance—your insurance provider, benefits consultant or a wellness provider. At Wellness Workdays, we work with clients throughout the US to assess their organization’s needs and develop a customized strategy to meet their goals. Contact us to learn how we can you help you improve your employees’ health.


#EmployeeHealth #WellnessProgramMistakes #WellnessData


A version of this article was published in Benefits Magazine in October 2011. It has been updated to include current information and best practices.

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