The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates lost productivity due to absenteeism in the U.S. costs employers $225.8 billion annually, or $1,685 per employee. Employers who implement a comprehensive workplace wellness program can help bring down these costs, effect positive lifestyle changes among their workforce, and create a culture of health within their company. Perhaps that’s why 67 percent of employers plan to expand their wellness programs in the next few years, according to a survey from the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) and Fidelity Investments.

“When employees are better taken care of and taking part in managing their own health, they’re not only sick less, but when they’re at work they’re more efficient workers,” says Michelle Carbery, a corporate wellness specialist at Independent Health. “That atmosphere is contagious, even out into the community. Your workplace is going to be somewhere people want to work.”

How to Build a Company Wellness Program

First, Carbery says, company leaders must enthusiastically support the effort and provide incentives. A wellness team or coordinator should drive and promote wellness efforts throughout the year.

“Employees aren’t going to buy in unless they see it’s important to the whole company,” she says.

After establishing who will take the lead, consider these five steps to build your worksite wellness program:

Step 1: Determine eligibility

Carbery recommends employers carefully consider who they would like to include in their program.

“Do you want to engage only full-time, benefit-eligible employees? Will you include spouses? Will you allow those who opt out of company-sponsored health insurance to participate? Employers can also look at health insurance claims data to determine where the health care spend is greatest and set goals from there,” says Carbery.

Step 2: Establish incentives

Carbery advises company leaders or wellness team members conduct an interest survey to gain employee input.

“Twenty percent of people are intrinsically motivated, meaning they will automatically do what they need to do to stay healthy. So, how do you motivate the other 80 percent?” asks Carbery. “Are they competitive? Do they want recognition? Do they enjoy team activities?”

Some companies offer paid time off, cash prizes, or gift cards. Others keep with a healthy living theme and offer professional, in-office massages, admission to healthy cooking classes, or “wellness” passes to leave work to see a doctor or go for a walk.

“It doesn’t have to be a huge cash award, if that’s not in your budget,” Carbery says. “It can be smaller prizes. People just love winning things.”

Step 3: Choose Challenges

Everyone loves a good challenge. This is your opportunity to choose the types of activities you want your employees to engage in throughout the year, and how they will earn points toward your wellness incentive. It’s important to find the right blend of programs that are balanced and meaningful to your employee population.

“This is another reason why the survey is so important,” explains Carbery. “Do you just need feel-good programs to boost morale? Do you have specific goals on managing weight and/or chronic disease? Do people just need some motivation and education to live a little healthier?”

Also, consider your industry. Employees in factory positions might benefit from an ergonomics program, for example. Or, employees working at a desk most of the day might benefit from steps challenges.

Carbery says some employers choose team-oriented weight loss or fitness challenges. Others employ a mix of fitness and educational opportunities, offering lunch-and-learn sessions on mental health, meditation or nutrition, smoking cessation programs, on-site blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, points for regular primary care check-ups, presentations on simple healthy habits, or healthy cooking classes.

Step 4: Verify Employees’ Progress

“It’s important to make reporting measures as simple as possible for employees to ensure maximum participation,” says Carbery.

Some employers choose paper tracking. Others create online reporting systems or use health insurance claims data to award points.

The companies Carbery works with often utilize Independent Health’s customizable FitWorks website to track participation in wellness programs, doctor visits, and other measures. Employees can also track their points through the website and app.

Monitoring employees’ progress helps shape the wellness program moving forward, and Carbery recommends yearly surveys to assess the value of the programs offered.

Step 5: Promote and Communicate

When you are ready to launch your wellness program, consider the best way to reach and motivate your employees.

Carbery suggests offering a free, healthy lunch to introduce the program, or make it a mandatory meeting, or otherwise incentivize employees participate.

“Emails tend to get lost, particularly in busy office environments, so find other ways to reach employees,” she suggests. “Some employers I work with post information on bathroom stalls where they have a captive audience. Be creative.”

Creating a Culture of Health

“Our data have shown companies with more employees engaged in incentivized wellness programs find people are going to their doctor more frequently, they’re getting their bloodwork done, they’re becoming more active, and seeing positive results,” says Carbery.

If you’re interested in starting a wellness program and need some tips or assistance, working with a dedicated corporate wellness specialist through Independent Health’s FitWorks can streamline the process and offer a “turn-key” solution to support higher engagement and better health among employees.

To see an example from one local employer, read about how accounting firm Lumsden McCormick implemented their wellness program.