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How to Create an Employee Wellness Program

By Chad Brooks
Business.com / Last Modified: June 27, 2018
Hector De La Torre

The Transamerica Center for Health Studies' Hector De La Torre highlights what an employee wellness plan should include and how to implement one.

Research has shown that having healthy employees can improve productivity, decrease absenteeism, reduce presenteeism and lower healthcare costs. With that in mind, many organizations are developing employee wellness programs.

As the executive director of the Transamerica Center for Health Studies, a nonprofit focused on helping consumers and businesses navigate the healthcare landscape, Hector De La Torre understands the benefits of employee wellness programs.

In addition to his role with the TCHS, De La Torre is a member of the L.A. Care Health Plan's board of governors and a trustee at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is also a former state assembly member in California.

We recently had the chance to speak with De La Torre on employee wellness and how organizations can develop successful wellness programs.

Q: Should employee wellness initiatives focus on an employees' physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing or both?

A: Initiatives should focus on both, because physical and mental health are crucial to employee performance. In addition, we're seeing an increasing awareness of the importance of mental health through healthcare practices and public policy such as the Mental Health Parity Act of 2008. This federal law generally prevents group health plans and health insurance issuers that provide mental health or substance use disorder benefits from imposing less favorable benefit limitations on those benefits than on medical/surgical benefits.

Q: What are some common things employers do that hurt their employees' wellness?

A: Leaders of organizations may be unaware of the connection between employee wellness and organizational outcomes like disability, turnover, productivity and absenteeism. Leadership attitudes toward wellness programs are probably the most difficult to overcome because, without significant intervention, they are resistant to change.

Leadership support for employee wellness appears to be one of the most critical factors in wellness program effectiveness and in the encouragement of employee participation in those programs. Without leadership support, many aspects of the work and environment are likely to work against employees having the time and opportunity to improve their health.

If leaders have little understanding of these well-established connections or dismiss the relevance of employee wellness in the workplace, they will not invest in these programs. If leaders believe that they cannot afford employees taking time to participate in wellness programs even when they know it would benefit the organization, they will not invest in them. However, leaders will invest in company-sponsored wellness programs when they understand how the organization will benefit and when they can find a wellness program that fits their specific circumstances.

Q: When creating an employee wellness program for your company, where should you start, and what are some key objectives it should contain?

A: Knowing the strong connection between organizational outcomes and employee wellness, employers can evaluate some of the facilitators (opportunities) and barriers unique to their company's work environment, company culture and other identifying characteristics.

To start, the FINDING FIT set of workplace wellness materials created with our partners at UC Berkeley's Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces are designed to guide organization leaders to determine which program type(s) they could successfully introduce to their employees. 

The key objectives include creating a wellness program to address the barriers and facilitators unique to an organization. Sample facilitators include shared values and interest among peers, motivation to engage in healthy behaviors at work, a perceived need for taking time for wellness, peer (emotional) support for lifestyle changes, affordability, and reasonable work hours. 

Examples of barriers an organization may encounter include a perceived lack of need, employees' low expectations of their organization and ability to provide wellness programs, a distrust of management, employee burnout, the inconvenience of some scheduled wellness events, and concerns about funding.

Q: What are the best strategies to get your employees to buy in to your company's employee wellness program?

A: Research has shown there are various strategies to encourage employee participation that include having a health-oriented culture, organizational commitment to employee health, employee involvement in program design, a supportive workplace environment, friendly competitions among co-workers, individually tailored interventions, fitting interventions to the resources and characteristics of the worksite, and/or conducting the program during work hours. Perhaps surprising to some is that research has also found the use of monetary incentives were not always successful in engaging employees.

Recognizing your employees' needs and preferences, as well as addressing the ways your organization may overcome certain barriers, can help with increasing employee participation. It is clear that participation is highest when employees want to improve their health, the program meets their needs, engagement is convenient and does not result in negative consequences, there is peer and manager support, leadership is supportive of a healthy culture, and/or results of the wellness program are personally rewarding.

Q: What are the best ways to measure whether your employee wellness program is making a positive impact?

A: The research conducted with our partners at the Healthy Workplaces Center at UC Berkeley underscore the importance of understanding the connection between organizational outcomes and the health and wellness of employees.

The most recent employer survey from Transamerica Center for Health Studies found that 74 percent of employers say that their workplace wellness program positively impacts their employees' job satisfaction. Reiterating the impact on organizational outcomes, the survey also found that about 4 in 5 employers believe the workplace wellness programs they offer have had a positive impact on workers' health (78 percent) as well as productivity and performance (75 percent).

Our research with the Healthy Workplaces Center at UC Berkeley also emphasized the impact organization leaders have on the wellness programs. What leadership considers important will filter down to managers, and managers will behave in a manner consistent with leadership.

Managers are often the gatekeepers for how and when employees participate in wellness programs. When leadership and managers are in alignment, employees will find it easier to take the time to engage and benefit from the program. This is the desired outcome of a well-informed, successful organization that believes work and health are not separate issues and that they are, in fact, connected.

Q: Are there any tools available to help employers build a wellness program that is right for their business?

A: Transamerica Center for Health Studies, in conjunction with the Healthy Workplaces Center at UC Berkeley, collaborated on a package of free workplace wellness materials. These include FINDING FIT, a technical report of our workplace wellness study; an employer guide to workplace wellness and an interactive online assessment, which guides users in selecting the wellness program type(s) that best fits their organization based on their unique opportunities and constraints.

The tool also links to the FINDING FIT employer guide to further address constraints, including employee motivation. Lastly, users can revisit and adjust their answers to see how their results might change in real time, reflecting which program types might be a better fit if changes are made. All of these materials are available on the Transamerica Center for Health Studies website.

Q: What piece of technology could you not live without?

A: My laptop – it goes with me everywhere and allows me to multitask, communicate, access the internet, produce a variety of work, etc.

Q: What is the best piece of career advice you have ever been given?

A: Do what you love to do that you are good at and committed to, then find someone to pay you to do it.

Q: What's the biggest mistake you have made?

A: I cashed out a 401(k) after leaving a job in my 20s. Definitely a short-sighted and poor financial decision.

Q: What's the best book or blog you've read this year?

A: "The Town" by William Faulkner, one of the great American authors creating unique and authentic characters within his small-town mythology.

Q: What do you do to achieve work-life balance?

A: On a day-to-day basis, being aware of and limiting any encroachment of work on my personal life (work to live and not live to work) and taking care of my health through healthy eating and exercise. Overall, spending time with my family and going into nature/outdoors as often as possible to relax and refresh.

Q: As a leader, what's the biggest challenge you face?

A: Juggling myriad responsibilities while staying attuned to my team members and colleagues so that we can all be productive and collaborative.

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