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22 Mar

The Biggest Mistakes in Employee Wellness Programs and How to Fix Them

Over the last ten years, employers have been increasingly interested in the long-term effects of putting the company over personal health.

This, along with the new values of a millennial workforce, has led many businesses to put together employee wellness programs. These programs are meant to encourage and enable employees to take better care of themselves, improving their overall health primarily through exercise and nutrition.

Unfortunately, not everyone does it right. The same corporate mentalities that led to unhealthy employees in the first place can infect your employee wellness program. If your corporate wellbeing initiative is not easy to join and rewarding to participate in, employees will either refuse or fail to meet your wellness goals. Let's look at a few of the most profound reasons why work health programs fail and how to make sure your program rocks.


1. Itemized Wellness Tasks

Some employers look at wellness like they look at anything else: like an itemized task for employees to complete. They would love to simply force employees to eat their vegetables, promote exercise, and have them keep track of wellness-related tasks they complete. If you catch a glimpse of one of these itemized wellness programs, your mind will boggle. In many programs, employees are required to perform a number of specific wellness tasks (think 20+ a week) and check them off a list to show that they have done the task.

Instead of making wellness fun and rewarding, employers who itemize tasks make wellness just another stressful, tedious work requirement. No one will want to do it, and they will resent the extra "work" being heaped onto their already full workloads.

Doing it Right:

The first step to a successful wellness program is accepting that not everyone is going to become healthier in the same way. It can be tempting to itemize and track wellness like you would a budget, but that's just not how people work. Some have faster or slower metabolisms, different physical abilities, and medical limitations.

If you want to track some kind of metric, start with something encouraging and simple that everyone does already: counting steps. Step-trackers can allow you to keep at least one basic metric of physical activity without forcing employees to record their wellness efforts line-by-line.


2. Participation Shaming

Not everyone will or even can join certain wellness activities. Some people are shy about exercising in front of others or even have an unstated medical condition that would make things like group exercise more difficult. Others have food allergies that keep them away from the catered lunches, and some just aren't "joiners" by nature. It's important to accept that every employee has a different relationship with wellness.

Unfortunately, you can quickly identify a toxic wellness program when employees who don't participate are chided, shamed, and isolated for their lack of participation. Those who don't get up and jazzercise with the team, those who don't jump up to make their own healthy lunch tacos are considered 'not team players' and are punished socially for what might be a disability they don't care to talk about.

Doing it Right:

Shame should never be a part of the workplace, for both moral and legal reasons. Any method that results in shaming, shunning, or making an employee feel bad for limited or lacking participation should be immediately reconsidered and replaced in favor of a supportive method.

Most people do not get healthier until they feel motivated, and this requires feelings of inclusion, not exclusion. Make sure to build your company culture around supporting people to take on healthy actions rather than punishing them for not participating in specific activities or meals.


3. Penalizing Unhealthy Employees

Along similar lines, but even worse, is a wellness program that actively punishes employees who are not already fit. Because the company has identified employee wellness as a problem, employees who show signs of non-wellness like being overweight, or eating chocolate bars are seen as actively doing something to defy the order to "be healthy".

Some companies go so far as to make wellness participation a mandatory part of work performance. These programs are also likely to feature itemized wellness tasks as we mentioned earlier.

Doing it Right:

A wellness program is a way to support employees. Like paid vacation days, comfortable chairs, and morning coffee, you provide a wellbeing program to give employees the option to make healthier choices. You can encourage them for taking you up on the offer and provide additional rewards for those who choose to get involved in wellness activities.

However, you should no more punish someone who gives in and has a cheeseburger for lunch than you would shame someone for bringing in a straight-backed wooden chair to work or making their own tea in the morning. Make sure to avoid a company culture that views the occasional unhealthy choice or less-than-fit employee as "making the company look bad".


4. Going Extreme

Another big mistake in a wellness program is focusing too much on extreme measures. Encouraging everyone to go on a juice cleanse or, worse, insisting that your employees join you for extreme sports events like mountain biking (yes, it has happened) is unbelievably exclusive to the already fit employees. While it may seem exciting to throw intense sports into your wellness programs, people who can plan intense sports are not those who need the program most.

Doing it Right:

While extreme sports may be fun, they are also way over-the-top for most people who are not already semi-professional athletes. Instead, focus on more casual and welcoming activities that promote a varied level of ability and participation.

Department soccer games, for instance, allow for some people to run around the field while others hold down positions. Those who are unable to run or kick can get involved by supplying the hydration and snacks and use the opportunity to take invigorating walks in the sunshine. Even an easier option would be to launch a corporate step challenge.


5. Biggest Loser Challenges

The number one biggest mistake your company can make in employee wellness is accidentally joining the 'Biggest Loser' trend. Many companies had this "great" idea to enterprise on the popular television show, not realizing that the contestants were volunteers, not employees who participate because they have to. Challenging your employees to a crash-weightloss competition is unhealthy on so many levels it's hard to express.

First, its primary focus is on appearance and body shaming, not steadily improving employee health. Second, it encourages crash dieting which can be very dangerous. Third, it creates a potential disadvantage for anyone with a medical condition. And finally, there's only one winner, making the rest of your employees "unhealthy losers". STAY AWAY.

Doing it Right:

Contests, even simple step-counting challenges and competitions, will always reward employees who are already healthy over those who need a wellness program the most.

Instead, if you want the motivation of 'competition', try challenging your employees to beat their own stats. Offer rewards to employees who perform significantly better over time to encourage real improvement, not just fitness performance.


6. Unhealthy Work Environments

And for our final mistake in employee wellness, some companies talk a good game about wellness but create an environment that promotes an unhealthy lifestyle. Some offices discourage walking around or exercising at your desk because it seems 'unprofessional' while others are constantly providing fatty foods without any balancing factor.

Pizza parties are fun and great for morale in moderation, but you'll want to make sure that every greasy choice is balanced by something healthy like a make-your-own-smoothie bar or fresh fruit and nuts alongside breakfast pastries in the break room. If you don't change your company culture, you can't expect your employees to change either.

Doing it Right:

No employer or manager actively tries to create an unhealthy work environment, but you do have to work with what is already in place. The key is to transition from your existing company culture to one that effectively promotes health and wellness. Replace an unhealthy thing with something equally fun but healthier or add a healthy element to a staff favorite. Like bagels instead of donuts in the morning, and catered sandwich wraps instead of pizza. This helps avoid company-culture-shock while introducing healthier options to the work environment.


Making Your Wellness Program Easy and Fun

So what is the key to a successful employee wellness program? By now, you may already see the pieces coming together. For a wellness program that everybody joins, enjoys, and benefits from, it will need to be easy and accessible.

Start with things that everyone can join in, even if they aren't up for a full workout routine. Cater healthy lunches and provide healthy snacks in the break room to keep employees away from doughnuts and cheeseburgers. Promote walking meetings or have a before work or after work walking group.

And, of course, start building a company culture of encouragement and support. When your colleagues encourage each other and promote health and wellness in a casual and positive way, you know you're on the right track.

Photo Credit: Depositphotos

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