Should Our Company Start a Workplace Wellness Program?

Whether you start small or hire a team of outside consultants, promoting employee health offers cost and other advantages for your business.

Given how busy you are running your business, starting a workplace wellness program may sound like more trouble than it's worth. But the time and effort can be well spent, offering a way to reduce absenteeism (and presenteeism, when sick people show up and possibly infect others), promote productivity and job satisfaction, and reduce both health insurance costs and overall costs.

If you already provide health benefits, that's a good start. But the majority of employers are now also turning to initiatives for promoting employee health and well-being, whether by offering activities and information or making healthy changes in-house, or by hiring outside service providers.

Remember that you enjoy unique access to your employees. You're probably together for many hours each day. So whether it's via company emails, memos, or meetings, you can use this access to convey health information and create a health-minded company culture.

What's a Workplace Wellness Program?

The typical wellness programs offer things like on-site health screenings, flu shots, exercise equipment or gym memberships, meditation or yoga classes, a switch from junk food to healthy food in employee cafeterias or snack areas, bonuses to workers who lose weight or reduce cholesterol, reimbursement for smoking-cessation and other treatment programs, and so on.

Your business doesn't have to do all these things. The basic idea is to respond to your employees' most pressing health needs by providing a select menu of fitness and behavioral activities, plus some education and guidance toward specialized health treatments or programs.

To start, you might try making changes or offering activities that are absolutely free: holding regular stretch breaks, organizing a walking program (often named by employees as their favorite workplace wellness activity), instituting policies against smoking at work, putting healthy snack choices in the vending machines, and organizing potluck lunches featuring healthy foods.

If you want to bring in guest speakers, hospitals and universities are good sources of experts for no or low cost.

Will Financial Investments in Such a Program Pay Off?

Of course, not everything is best done for free (you wouldn't want to try DIY blood draws, for instance). And perhaps you'd rather pay someone else for help than devote administrative time to creating in-house activities or changes.

Fortunately, based on other employers' experience, your chances of coming out ahead look good. Numerous studies have found a positive return on investment (ROI) for employers instituting wellness programs--anywhere from $1 to $13 gained (in improved productivity and reduced insurance costs) for every $1 spent.

Still, experts caution against over-optimism. You're not likely to see high results within the first year, and certain types of industries get better results than others. Businesses with high employee turnover, for example, have less of a shot at changing their employees' behavior or of reaping long-term rewards from any changes.

What Legal Issues Should I Consider When Starting a Workplace Wellness Program?

There are a number of federal and state employment and tax laws you will likely need to be aware of when designing and implementing a wellness program. For instance:

  • If you plan to offer rewards or incentives that are based on health outcomes and that affect the amount of your employees' contributions to their health coverage, you will need to comply with federal HIPAA requirements, particularly to avoid discriminating based on health factors.
  • Given that you may be putting information such as employees' weight, medications, and so on into your files, you will need to take steps to protect their private and health-related information.
  • In creating enforcement-style motivation for participation, such as firing someone for not stopping smoking within a certain length of time, you will need to avoid legal troubles, most likely charges of discrimination. Your program must treat employees fairly and in a non-discriminatory fashion when it comes to access and benefits.
  • To protect your company from potential liability, you'll want to have employees sign a legally valid waiver of injuries caused by participation in program activities.

Consult an employment law attorney for more information.

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