How to implement a successful corporate wellness program - 5 key ingredients for HR to consider

Workplace “wellness” is the new buzz word on the street. All types and breeds of companies from start-ups to massive corporate conglomerates are now investing in schemes that work to boost the morale and productivity levels of its employees. You would have to be living under a rock in the Bermuda Triangle to not have noticed the assortment of corporate events designed around the “wellness” axiom (such as “Wellness Wednesdays”) intended to entice employees into this greater wellness trend.

With the modern work-place increasingly characterised by high demands, long hours and information overload, it is not surprising that we are desperately seeking ways to revive its burnt-out, bleery eyed and over-caffeinated workers. Contemporary offices are donning levels of stress and unhappiness greater than ever before. There has never been a more critical time than now for practices of self-care and wellbeing to take the main stage.  

What is wellness?

Wellness is the cornerstone of a person’s quality of life. The World Health Organisation defines “wellness” as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” It is more than being free from illness. A person who is “well” will ultimately look and feel good, including feeling happy in work and life.

The process of achieving wellness involves discovering the best “tools” to help you become a healthier and happier person. In this continually evolving world, there are countless ways to enrich yourself and improve your life. The question is, how are these tools best applied in the modern-day work setting?

Amongst the sea of workplace challenges like deadlines, impromptu meetings, persistent bosses and endless workloads, how do corporate wellness programs achieve their desired outcomes?

5 Key Ingredients for a Successful Wellness Program

The process of improving the quality of life and mental health of employees, including minimising stress levels and increasing productivity, is not a single ticket approach. Improving the health of a company and the wellbeing of the people that make it function involves a number of responses that are all vital to the success of any wellness initiative. 

HR Professionals and companies that are looking to improve the wellness and productivity levels of their employees need to consider the following before attempting to implement any kind of wellness program. Drawing upon our experience in the corporate health arena, we believe the following five key ingredients significantly contribute to the success of a corporate wellness program.

1. Leaders must be active in their commitment to and support of wellness. A wellness program will struggle to succeed in engaging staff where leaders of the company are not actively involved in and supporting the initiative. For the continued success of workplace wellness initiatives, leaders must be seen as actively encouraging staff to adopt and prioritise self-care strategies, as well as engaging in company wellness strategies themselves.

Mark Bertolini, CEO of AETNA (US $60 billion Insurance Company), showed what is possible when corporate wellness programs receive the support of company leaders. Following his own miraculous recovery from a near-death skiing accident, Bertolini rehabilitated his body through yoga and meditation. Inspired by his own wellness journey, Bertolini introduced yoga, meditation and mindfulness programs at AETNA, which was a huge success.

Following the introduction of the AETNA Program, employees reported feeling happier and less stressed at work. Not only that, the physical and emotional benefits to AETNA employees were matched by a significant reduction of health care costs for the company. One year following the implementation of the AETNA wellness program, paid medical claims per employee went down 7.3 percent, amounting to about $9 million in savings

2. Company wellness needs to be regarded as a cultural change. The culture of the company needs to reflect a commitment to wellness. Systems and procedures must be adopted that support and encourage the health of employees for a real shift in company culture to occur.

For instance, Australian law firm, Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), has invested huge amounts of time and resources in improving staff morale and their wellbeing. They do this by adopting policies and guidelines that focus on employee wellbeing (such as guidelines on the consequences of working too hard and the impact of lack of sleep on a person's mental health).

HSF also supports flexible working hours to allow people to work sensibly around their life needs, thereby empowering their staff to be adults. Having been voted most desirable law firm to work at in Australia for the past three consecutive years in Lawyers Weekly Employer of Choice Survey, HSF’s efforts have certainly been worthwhile.

3. Wellness programs must be inclusive and voluntary. Wellness initiatives must be sensitive to individual choices and should not be imposed on staff. A wellness program which welcomes only one set of views and which excludes alternative views, will carry a moral overtone and risks isolating employees with differing belief systems. An invitation to make healthy choices, rather than an instruction, empowers people to make constructive and independent decisions around their wellbeing as adults.

When speaking about workplace wellbeing and mindfulness programs, Murray Paterson, Head of Capability Development at HSF, says: “If you apply a moral tone to anything you’re doing, be conscious that people will feel ‘bad’ or ‘shamed’”, which is counterintuitive to any wellness initiative.

4. Communication with staff about wellness. There can be major barriers to successfully implementing wellness programs where there is little to no awareness or interest in wellness initiatives and their outcomes. There can even exist a lack of trust about an employer’s motive where staff aren’t properly briefed or given sufficient information about a new program.

Communications should be tailored and relentless, conveying the message that the wellness program is there to serve employees, improve their health and create a happier work environment.

Mark Bertolini sent clear and strategic messages to his staff about wellness, detailing the reasons for investment in workplace wellbeing and how staff would benefit from participation. This allowed AETNA staff to understand the WHY behind their wellness activities and to feel both motivated and nurtured in a meaningful way.

5. Health screening and staff surveys. Promoting health in the workplace is most effective when it is tailored and targeted to its audience. Engagement will be highest when staff are given ownership over the program through surveys of interest and by identifying individual health needs.

The establishment of a wellness committee and staff surveys are a common approach to understanding what your particular organisation feels would be of greatest benefit to them. Health screening, also through surveys and/or medical examinations, are another way to determine the health needs and levels of fitness of your staff.

Bertolini arranged health screenings for all his staff prior to kicking off the AETNA wellness program. Understanding their health risks proved to be a huge motivator for AETNA employees to stay engaged in the wellness programs and to consistently make better decisions around their health.

Seek Advice

For HR professionals and companies looking to implement a wellness program, it does not need to be anything fancy or high tech, it just needs to be considered and slotted within a structure that supports it. If your workplace prioritises health and wellbeing and you are looking to take measures that increase the wellness of your staff, we can deliver advice and offer various approaches to meet your particular organisational needs.

For more information, contact wellness expert, Dwana Walsh at Align Life, on 0411 364 406 or

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