Businesses Owners Consider Benefits of Encouraging Healthy Employee Lifestyle

Wellness programs are easy to set up and cheap to run, and they can save you money in the long run.

Businesses Owners Consider Benefits of Encouraging Healthy Employee Lifestyle

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Health benefits to cover your employees when they’re sick are a necessary expense. But have you ever thought of doing more — encouraging them to make healthier choices?

A workplace wellness program is no substitute for a health plan, but over time, it could help you reduce your benefits costs. And it pays off in other ways, too.

Employers who offer wellness programs report reduced sick time, heightened productivity, and even a boost in morale and teamwork, says Julie Stich, research director for the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. The Wisconsin-based organization conducts research and advises employers on benefit trends and practices.

In a 2012 survey of more than 500 International Foundation members, 70 percent reported some kind of wellness program, Stich says. They’re especially common at big companies, which often hire outside vendors to provide them. Health insurers sometimes offer wellness programs to the companies they serve, too – either as part of the benefits package or as an add-on.

But wellness programs aren’t just for large employers, Stich says. They don’t have to be complex or costly – and you don’t even have to hire an outside consultant to put one together.

“There are some easy, less complicated things a small employer can do, things that can make a difference,” she says. “You can start small and build from there.”


Eight Ideas

So where do you start?

1. Healthy snacks

“It can be as simple as making sure that in the vending machines there are healthier choices available,” says Stich. Cut back on the sodas and add bottled water. Replace some of the candy bars with lower-fat or sugar-free varieties.

2. Lunch and learn

Your local health clinic or hospital probably has a speakers’ program that can send experts out to talk to the public: the hospital dietitian on healthy eating, an internist on preventing colds, or a physical therapist on preventing exercise injuries. Schedule them during the lunch break and encourage employees to attend. If you ask several different organizations, you can probably get enough topics and speakers for a monthly event.

3. Encourage exercise

“You can buy everybody who works for you a pedometer so they can track how many steps they take every day,” says Stich. Just the awareness will motivate some people to get up and move more.

If you wish, turn it into a low-key contest, awarding an inexpensive gift card to the person with the highest pedometer reading every quarter. (You might want to create categories of competitors, so people whose jobs keep them at their desks – the office help – aren’t always “losing” to people in the field whose work has them moving around all day.)

4. Screenings

Once again, turn to local health providers. Host a health screening afternoon with nurses or other professionals who come in, take employees’ blood pressure and offer other simple assessments. Even some employees with health insurance probably haven’t made a habit of getting an annual physical from their doctor. This could help spur them into doing so.

5. Kicking butts

Local chapters of the American Lung Association ( or the American Cancer Society ( can set up a program to help smokers in your workforce kick the habit.

6. Paring off the pounds

Weight Watchers and other weight-loss programs often set up work site-based programs, meeting after work or during breaks. Some might discount fees in return for the chance to enroll a group of people at once. Some employers choose to subsidize enrollment, but nothing says you have to.

7. Room to move

Workplace fitness centers are becoming popular with some employers. They don’t have to be big or sport Olympic-sized swimming pools – or any pool at all. They don’t even have to have expensive weight machines. It may be enough to put a walking trail on the property and encourage employees to use it during the lunch break. Even a sidewalk around the perimeter of the building can suffice.

“It’s good to get out in the middle of the day,” says Stich, a regular user of the walking trails that her own employer has put up at its headquarters.

If you want to do more, consider offering classes in everything from aerobics to yoga. Look for qualified teachers at the local YMCA or other fitness organizations. Or see if a local fitness center will discount monthly fees for your employees. If your cash flow permits, you might offer to subsidize the fee as an employee benefit.          

8. Kick it up a notch

A little competition, like the pedometer contest, can stimulate interest. If you want to expand on that, consider all kinds of friendly health and fitness challenges for participating employees. Award points for reporting healthier eating habits, attending those monthly health talks, or taking part in an exercise program, for example. Winners can get simple prizes, or even a slight discount on the employee portion of the health insurance plan premium.

There is almost no limit to the sorts of wellness programs you can offer. Purchase some fitness DVDs for employees to borrow and watch at home. Have a healthy recipe “taste-off” during lunch, or pick a special day when you ask everyone to bring a salad to pass.

Try an offbeat fitness initiative: Last summer, says Stich, the benefits foundation had an employee bocce league. The Italian lawn bowling game was infectious – even people who didn’t join a team kept track of the standings.

Creating a team of interested employees to organize and run the wellness program can spark interest. “The more involvement you get from the people who are participating, the more you can build participation,” Stich says. Remember, though, that “not everyone participates.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.

There is one group you do want to take part – you and your top management. If employees take seriously your encouragement to use the fitness center but never see the supervisor there, “the message gets mixed then,” Stich says. “The more buy-in you get from your leadership, the more participation from employees there will be.”


The Payoff

It isn’t easy to measure the profit from wellness programs – and you won’t see it overnight. “You can’t start a program in November and know by December how much money you’ve saved,” says Stich. “There’s usually about a three- to five-year time frame before you can measure the cost impact.”

Fewer than one employer in five that the foundation surveyed tried to measure their return from wellness initiatives. But in a follow-up survey, she says, those who drilled down to that level reported saving two to three dollars on average for every dollar they spent on wellness.

Savings, she adds, isn’t just measured in the dollars your health benefit plan pays out. “If you’ve got a healthier workforce, they’ll be coming to work,” Stich says. “They’ll need less time off because they’re sick. And if they’re feeling good, they’ll be more productive for you. That’s part of it too.”

Help your people live healthier lives, and your bottom line will be healthier, too.


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