So, you did it. You launched a wellness program for employees. The only problem? They aren’t really using it. Tough blow, but don’t worry. You aren’t the only company facing this predicament.
According to a survey of American workers by the Global Wellness Institute, about half of employees have access to workplace wellness programs, but a third of them don’t engage. While it’s easy to conclude that employee wellness programs aren’t effective or that employees aren’t interested, there’s a chance that — and this may sting a bit — it’s not them; it’s you.
The same survey found that only a quarter of employees believe their managers care about their well-being, and more than half of employees agree that employee wellness programs are put in place to control health care costs. This hunch that these programs exist more to reduce health care costs than out of a genuine desire to help employees can hurt engagement levels. So what do employees really want? Well, they want you to mean it.
There has to be a sense that wellness is part of the culture as a whole. Efforts have to feel authentic because if employees don’t believe their employer cares, they’re not going to feel comfortable working out on their lunch break or signing up for a company running group that requires them to leave early once a week.
Before going any further with your wellness initiatives, ask yourself these questions:
Are managers excited?
Even if managers aren’t discouraging employees outright, not actively encouraging them to participate can be just as harmful to engagement. “Direct managers can make or break how employees perceive and engage with programs,” says Kristine Holbrook, who oversees a variety of wellness initiatives at EXOS. Meaning that even if employees are encouraged to participate by other leaders, their direct managers may act in ways that make them feel like they don’t actually have permission to do so. “That’s why it’s so important for organizations to arm their direct managers,” Holbrook says.
If they understand how the program could increase energy and reduce stress, they may be more likely to participate themselves, which speaks louder than any flyer in a break room. Plus, if you frame up other benefits like reduced absenteeism and happier team members, they may take a more active role in encouraging others to participate with them. If a culture of wellness is going to take hold, managers have to be all in.
What are you doing to build a culture of wellness?
Instead of just creating wellness events and opportunities, think about the whole picture. While peer support and support from direct, middle managers is critical, it’s also important for employees to see their executive teams practicing what they preach.
“If you’re launching a program, you need leadership messaging to explain what it’s about and what they’re looking to do, but if you can find a senior leader who has a story to tell, that’s what can resonate strongly,” says Robert Fernandez, director of account management at EXOS. It sends the message from the top that wellness means something to the company on a personal level.
As far as the space itself, think about the little details from room to room. Standing desks are a popular option, but what else could you be doing? “Try to break it down space by space and understand what you could be doing in that space,” Fernandez explains. For example, one of EXOS’ clients posts motivational messaging on the light posts in parking lots.
Have you collected enough data?
The most authentic programs are formed when employers ask employees what they want and need most. “It’s important for the employers to see if their own thoughts match what employees are saying,” says Holbrook. For example, a recent survey of about 2,000 workers found discrepancies between what employees want in wellness programs and what their employers actually offered. While 73 percent said they want healthy vending and cafeteria options, only 45 percent of employers provide it. Seventy-one percent want stress breaks, but only 28 percent of employers make this an option (this could include massage or meditation spaces).
Once you get a sense of the perks your employees actually want and the health issues and challenges they face, you can begin to personalize the program to be more appealing. Send out surveys, ask for opinions, and host round tables. Gathering more data helps you help them. And making them part of the process gives a stronger sense that you’re on their side.
Who’s communicating and how?
A few emails from human resources won’t make employees flock to the program. That’s why many companies are identifying wellness champions and committees at their office to be the voices of the program and to promote wellness at a grassroots level. This approach tends to make wellness feel more ingrained in the company culture versus something human resources pushes on employees.
“Some people don’t want to hear from the experts. And some people aren’t motivated by their boss encouraging them to do something that’s not a requirement,” says Fernandez. “What can be the biggest influencer is peer excitement.” And that excitement starts with a small group of employees who felt empowered and able to participate.
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