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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Workers will participate in wellness offerings — if you make it easy

One-off activities don’t work, experts say. And while financial incentives can entice employees to participate, programs don’t have to be expensive.

Programs that offer social engagement, such as group

Programs that offer social engagement, such as group yoga classes, encourage employee participation. Photo Credit: Getty Images / iStock

A survey last year by UnitedHealthcare found that about two thirds of employee respondents were unwilling to devote at least an hour per day to improving their health.

Yet, nearly 60 percent of employees in the same survey said company wellness programs have had a positive impact on their health.

Barriers preventing employee participation include workers’ lack of knowledge of the wellness resources available, companies’ sometimes failing to provide programs that workers want, and inconsistent leadership support, according to a new guide from Transamerica Center for Health Studies and the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at University of California, Berkeley.

“It has to be part of the culture and have leadership buy-in,” says Hector De La Torre, executive director of the Transamerica Center in Los Angeles, which teamed up with the Interdisciplinary Center to provide an assessment tool and guide for small to mid-size employers on implementing wellness programs successfully.

One-off activities and programs don’t work, he says. There must be a long-term commitment, and it’s not one size fits all. That’s why the guide offers a multi-page assessment to determine what’s right for your company. See it at

But in general, the top three wellness offerings that small- to medium-sized companies said they provided employees were social engagement programs (such as a lunch or walking club), ergonomic furniture and equipment, and healthy food and drink offerings, De La Torre says.

The programs with the least utilization based on focus group responses were subsidized gym memberships and targeted behavior-change programs such as individualized counseling, he says.

The Transamerica report found that financial incentives work in limited cases, and when the incentive is removed, the behavior stops.

But some experts say it can be a necessary component to get initial employee buy-in.

“We’ve found that programs that offer incentives tend to be the ones employees participate in,” says Rebecca Madsen, chief consumer officer for Minnesota-based UnitedHealthcare. But those programs also have to engage your employees and be customized to your own workforce, she says.

Your wellness initiatives don’t have to be expensive to be effective.

Your health plan/provider can look at historical claims data and identify the most common health challenges, which can help with program selection, Madsen says. Get input from employees and gauge their priorities.

You can also conduct anonymous employee surveys to avoid privacy concerns, since “people’s health is really personal,” she says.

ClearVision Optical, a Hauppauge designer and distributor of eyewear, has a committee with representatives from different business areas that meets monthly and steers a lot of the company’s wellness efforts, says senior talent leader Jennifer Trakhtenberg.

It offers programs year-round, including yoga classes, biometric screening and onsite massages, she says.

It offers a wellness-themed week, a fitness-themed week and a relaxation-themed week each year in addition to monthly spotlights like breast cancer awareness in October.

It also has a walking club, where participants earn incentives like gift cards for walking during the workday, says Trakhtenberg, who is part of the club.

“I do pretty much everything we offer,” she says, noting “wellness is really integrated into our culture.”

Education programs also are generally well received, says Olivia Napoli, a Smithtown-based corporate wellness consultant.

For example, she does a grocery store tour with employees showing them how to pick out nutritious foods. Companies can also do “lunch and learns” and monthly employee wellness newsletters, she says.

They could do a Fitbit challenge contest or even plant an organic garden that employees could nurture and harvest from, Napoli says.

Whichever you choose, “you want to make it as easy as possible for employees to participate,” De La Torre says.

Fast Fact:


Percentage of employees who said they would have a greater commitment to their company if it offered programs to improve their health.

Source: Transamerica Center for Health Studies

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