Groups Issue Employer Guide for Implementing Wellness Programs

The guide for small and mid-sized employers is based on research that found what would promote employees’ participation in health wellness programs and barriers to employers offering and employees participating in them.

The Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at University of California, Berkeley, in collaboration with the Transamerica Center for Health Studies has issued an employer guide, “Finding Fit: Implementing Wellness Programs Successfully,” for small and mid-sized companies.

In research by the groups, both individual and organizational perceptions of wellness program adoption and employee participation were explored. Employees of small and mid-sized organizations talked extensively about what would promote their participation in wellness programs. Having peers at work who share health values and interests provides important support and encouragement that helps employees increase and maintain engagement in healthy behaviors. Similarly, peer support for lifestyle changes was an important resource that enabled individuals to engage in behavior change.

Employees’ intrinsic interest in healthy behavior at work also contributed to participation, as did their perceived need for taking time for wellness. The affordability of activities that promote healthy behavior was also important for employees to take the first step towards forming healthy habits (e.g., working out at a gym).

Employees also mentioned significant barriers that discouraged participation. They were competing demands for their time such as family responsibilities, difficulty in making wellness a priority given few hours left outside of work, lack of energy to participate due to job burnout, and wellness being a “luxury” when not even basic needs like eating or sleeping are being met. Other reasons given were a perceived lack of need for a wellness program, a distrust in the motive behind management-initiated programs, privacy concerns related to personal health conditions, and the absence of a program of activity that they would be interested in or enjoy.

Facilitators of employee participation from the perspective of organizational leaders (e.g., HR, C-Suite officers, managers) included several aspects of leadership support: leadership understanding the link between health and important work outcomes, leaders’ active support for their workers participating in wellness-related activities, leaders cultivating a culture of health, and leaders understanding how to design wellness activities that take into account the needs and preferences of employees. Organizational leaders also reported the importance of scheduling wellness events at a time and place convenient to employees and establishing expectations of reasonable work hours so that employees are more inclined to engage in healthy behaviors.

Organizational leaders also reported a recognition that the workspace itself could be designed for health and wellness such as accessible stairwells, bike racks, height-adjustable work surfaces, outdoor physical activity and healthy eating options. They also indicated that a major facilitator was establishing a variety of high-quality methods to communicate about wellness and with the right messages.

Many barriers to participation were expressed by organizational leaders. A number of factors were associated with the leaders themselves: a lack of clarity regarding the link between wellness programs and business outcomes, concerns about the funds necessary to effectively implement a wellness program, a leadership attitude that employees may take advantage of wellness events to take time away from work, the belief that taking action toward addressing employee health and well-being won’t work if the employees lack the motivation to change, the perceived lack of need for wellness programs because employees already take care of their  own health, and concerns about liability.

One of the most prevalent issues mentioned by organizational leaders was the lack of personnel to “own” wellness initiatives and take the lead. Organizational leaders also cited other problems such as wellness-related events being scheduled at inconvenient times during work or after work, and the type of work employees perform does not allow them to participate during work hours. The lack of leaders’ active and consistent leadership support for employee participation and the absence of a culture of health were also mentioned as barriers.

Many structural and operational barriers were mentioned: the lack of financial resources to support wellness initiatives, the expectation of long work hours, bureaucratic and logistical issues that prevent or discourage wellness activities from being scheduled or communicated in a timely manner, and employees occupying multiple roles in the organization which limits their ability to participate. Finally, confusion about benefits that can be provided by the health insurance company to assist employees’ wellness and the failure to take full advantage of health insurance company benefits add to the barriers to employee participation.

The employer guide leads employers through a series of assessments which will provide feedback regarding their readiness to create a wellness strategy, their ability to craft a strategy that works with their organizational constraints, and the degree of fit between their employees’ wellness needs and wellness solutions. “Careful and thoughtful responses to these questions will be the key to your success in using this Guide,” the centers say.