Employee wellness and wellbeing programs are having a big moment—84% of companies with 200 or more employees have one, in fact. And that’s a very positive development, as the last few years have revealed the importance of mental and physical health in the workplace and the key role employers play in providing a work environment that lets employees thrive.
But one of the often overlooked benefits of employee wellness programs is increased productivity. Here’s how employers can develop wellness programs that promote productivity while also ensuring employees can live their happiest, healthiest lives inside and outside of work.
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What is an employee wellness program?
An employee wellness program is any kind of program your company puts in place to support and encourage employees as they develop or sustain a healthy lifestyle. Wellness programs can also help employees reduce stress and burnout levels and optimize their happiness.
Often, wellness programs focus on reducing healthcare costs by getting employees to focus on losing weight, exercising more, and eating better. And while those programs can be worthwhile, it’s also worth thinking about how your employee wellbeing program can also improve employee productivity and engagement (it’s just one of the many hidden benefits of wellness programs).
These programs are also more attractive to employees because instead of simply telling them to do something like eating healthier because it will benefit your company’s healthcare costs, you’re helping them to live a life with less stress and enjoy their work more. It’s a win-win because it also reduces the lost productivity that comes with workplace stress.
Fortunately, that kind of holistic view is becoming more common—it’s also one of the 10 workplace wellness trends to watch in 2023.
The impact of stress on productivity
Stress is not only bad for physical and mental health. It also has a strong impact on productivity at work. In fact, employees with high levels of stress are more likely to miss work and show lower levels of engagement when they are at work.
And high stress levels are bad for employee retention too. Employers lose 15-20% of their total payroll in voluntary turnover costs due to burnout, so your stressed out employees are hurting your bottom line as well as their own health and wellbeing.
Implementing an employee wellness program designed to reduce stress and burnout can help employees stay happy and healthy, both at work and in their personal lives. Providing a thoughtful wellbeing program takes the burden off of employees to manage their own stress levels and burnout and shows that your organization is committed to their happiness at work and their job satisfaction.
Understanding the components of a successful employee wellness program
But what exactly separates successful corporate wellness programs from ones that go unused?
Gartner research has found that one of the critical ways to make an employee wellness program work as part of a strong employee value proposition (EVP) is focusing on the why, not just what you give employees.
What does that mean in practice? Developing a successful wellness initiative means considering what would truly make a difference in the stress levels of your workers. It might seem positive to jump on trends like adding a weekly meditation session to the calendar, but if employees have high stress levels because of their overwhelming workloads and a lack of work-life balance, those deep breathing exercises are not going to make a big difference.
Not sure what would meaningfully move the needle on employee wellbeing? Ask employees directly what they're struggling with and what kind of wellness initiatives they would like to see. You might uncover some interesting ideas along the way, and you’ll ensure that your wellness benefits are truly designed to support employees.
While there’s no one perfect employee wellbeing program, here are a few options that employees typically find supportive and that positively impact productivity.
Encourage (or require) work-life balance
Too many workplace wellness programs ignore the very real costs to mental and physical health that poor work-life balance impose on employees. An effective wellness program might encourage, or even require, employees to take time off for vacations or even just spending their lunch hour truly unplugged from work.
Your efforts to encourage work-life balance might require taking a hard look at your company culture as well. Are leaders and managers modeling the kind of behavior you’d like employees to have, such as not sending emails during vacations or after working hours?
Time spent away from work benefits employees’ mental health, but it can also increase productivity as they come back rested and recharged and ready to engage with their work.
In an ideal world, adding a gym to your office is a great way to encourage employees to destress with some physical activity that’s easy to access. Getting regular exercise can also help employees with stress management and thus productivity, and encourages them to take breaks from work as well.
If your employees are mostly remote, or you don’t have the capacity to add an on-site fitness area to your office, you can also offer them discounts on gym memberships to help them access healthy activities.
You could also add a fun step challenge with employees teaming up to see who can be active the most over a certain period of time and offer prizes as incentives to participate. As with any of your employee benefits, to get high participation rates be sure that the discounts are for convenient gyms, offer significant savings, and are easy to access.
Stress management is a critical component of employee engagement—it’s hard to be invested in your work when dealing with burnout, poor mental health, or other stressors. And it’s also critical for productivity as well.
To prevent sick days and presenteeism from taking their toll on your company’s productivity levels, wellness activities such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation can help employees manage their stress levels. Whether stress is due to work conditions like a busy time of year or personal issues, knowing how to handle stress is key to preventing health risks and reducing absenteeism. Plus, these wellness activities can serve as opportunities for team-building as team members participate together in a regularly scheduled class or special event.
And while the benefits in employee productivity and creating healthy employees are very serious, your wellbeing programs don’t need to be—we’ve got ideas for more fun workplace wellness programs.
Companies that have seen success with employee wellness programs
Asana offers daily yoga programs and free gym memberships to help their employees stay healthy and reduce their stress levels. Their in-house culinary program which serves three nutritious, organic meals per day also encourages healthy eating.
Intuit gives employees access to stress management resources such as mindfulness and resilience sessions with industry experts, twelve free therapy counseling sessions, and five days off per year to volunteer in the community.
Google not only gives employees generous paid time off by US standards (three to five weeks, depending on tenure), but also gives employees the option to take up to three months of unpaid sabbatical.
Investing in employee health and wellness for a more productive workforce
Investing in the health and wellness of your employees isn’t just the right thing to do—it also offers significant productivity benefits for your company. Employees who are healthy are more effective in their jobs, but it’s also motivating for them to know they work for a company that prioritizes their health and wellbeing.