How to Run a Corporate Wellness Program Your Team Will Love

6.12.17 By Matthew Stoltz


When you think of corporate wellness, do you envision a happier tribe - tough-mudding, ballroom dancing, and crane-kicking their way to Karate championships? 

Your team might not feel the same way.

In fact, their image of corporate wellness might be more like rowers aboard a Viking vessel – being forced to pull the ship forward.

If your participation rates are lower than expected, and if only a select few (those who are already have fitness routines) tend to stick with the program, then it’s time to reconsider your approach to wellness.


Two Camps of Thought 

People have different opinions about healthcare initiatives in the workplace. The first group consists of optimists, believing whole-heartedly that a large-scale program will improve overall employee well-being and increase company performance. They favor going all-in on wellness programs from fitness activities to nutrition to hosting classes on mindfulness.

The second camp is cynical and minimalist. This group believes that large-scale wellness programs are a waste, and that it’s up to individuals to take advantage of basic perks such as free gym memberships and healthy snack options.


But does it work?

There’s no doubting that wellness is effective. One study (among countless others) found that 67% of employees who participate in wellness programs feel more engaged in their employer’s mission.  

Additional studies have found that:

  • Healthy employees have 41% lower health-related costs compared to less active peers    
  • Disease management wellness can reduce hospital admissions by as much as 30%  
  • A Fortune 500 company saved $250 million on healthcare costs over a ten-year period  

So yes, if all you wanted to know what should you invest time, money, and energy into wellness initiatives, you have an answer.


That still leaves a gaping question about how to develop a program that’s right for your organization. How can we execute, help our employees be happier, and enter that win-win-win ideal state? 


Take a Lesson from the Experts

Baltimore-based FX Well, the corporate wellness division of FX Studios, focuses on the optimization of organizational performance by pairing customized wellness training with tech. The company originally designed fitness centers, like the Under Armour Performance Center (a state-of-the-art 35,000 square foot training mecca) and expanded their services to offer virtual coaching through a dynamic web platform and mobile app.

We’re going to learn from their success in managing programs for high-performance organizations like Under Armour, Kaiser Permanente, and the Indiana National Guard.

We’ll also discuss why it is essential to employ a centralized technology for tracking and managing the health side of your program. Without it, you’ll be doomed to be forever lost in the labyrinths that are spreadsheets.

Let's dive in.


1. People first

So, what do the people want?


Scratch that.


The right question to ask is is what do your people want?


You aren’t “getting” folks to do a better job. You’re setting up a program to help your team live a happier, more fulfilling life.

Al Lewis, a well-known skeptic of wellness programs says that, while encouraging employee health is positive, pushing a health agenda can be harmful. We can learn what not to do from his criticism of programs that push their employees too far.

  • Don’t penalize people, ever. You’re not going to win friends by threatening them with higher health benefit costs or shame.
  • Avoid frequent health screenings, which can get expensive.
  • Weight-loss requirements are a no-no. While an effort to help at-risk people, and reducing diabetes might seem like a worthy cause, if you’re in it for that reason, alone, you will lose your participants before the program begins.

Cindy Baum, 4th Source Vice President of Global HR, explained the importance of being inclusive:

“The most important benefit of us customizing our Corporate Wellness Program is the ability to make it inclusive of all employees, to make them all feel welcome to participate. 

We have employees on each end of the activity spectrum, from insanely athletic to mostly sedentary. By offering different types of corporate challenges, as well as the individual goal challenges, we give everyone the chance to participate within their comfort zone as well as motivation to expand and compete with others.”  


How can we figure out what our people want and still cater to everyone?

Ask. It’s a simple, but powerful strategy that surprisingly few wellness programs take advantage of. Conduct a survey asking your team about their challenges, how they want to improve, and what activities they’d like to be a part of.

We all know that diet and exercise are the basics of a wellness program. You’d be surprised what else turns up with employee surveys. One office might be talking about organizing a walk/run 5K, but at HQ, you don’t know because you’re not asking.

FX Well, when working with the Indiana National Guard, flew a team of fitness coaches and a dietician to Indiana for a 4-day health assessment. They discussed the challenges of balancing civilian life with military service, and FX Well discovered that all the participants were highly motivated to stay in the National Guard, but found daily health management and accountability challenging.

It only took one question to uncover the painpoints that led to a specific plan of action.

Conduct a survey. It will not need to be as involved as FX Well’s, but it will uncover challenges and spark ideas on how to support your team’s health goals.



2. Culture. Buy-in or bust

Happiness is different for everyone, yet there are universal drivers, and that is where culture comes into play.

In his book, “Delivering Happiness,” Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, explains how culture is at the center of everything for his company. The driver of that culture (which outperforms competitors by 20% – and was acquired by Amazon) is fueled by belief above all. People are in it because they want to be in it together.

As one article by article explains,

“Zappos has a belief that the right culture with the right values will always produce the best organizational performance, and this belief trumps everything else.”

If you have the belief system in place (starting with leadership), the culture will follow. It’s a long-term play, however, so start small and expect to grow organically. Nothing turns people off more than forced participation.


Leadership. Like most company-wide efforts, wellness programs have an element of change management. And we can go deep on change management, citing how to incorporate it in your IT or ServiceNow frameworks, but we’ll hold back.

The idea here is that your leadership team needs to be as actively involved as the expectations they set for the company. No hand-offs here. If you’re in – go all in.


Communication should be transparent and ongoing. How does HR normally post intra-company news? Use that same vehicle to drum up serious support for your wellness program. At 4th Source, we use Yammer, the company-wide social media network, to spread the word. It’s also a great tool for onboarding.


Don’t place the onboarding effort solely on HR. Wellness champions will be your best friends. You know there’s that one person on each team that’s super gung-ho about joining the wellness program. Assign them to be a wellness champion for their team/division. Their job will be to influence and inspire others.

Hold a wellness champion meeting or seminar to educate them on exactly what your plan entails, and how they can succeed.

To tackle the challenge of onboarding for Kaiser Permanente, FX Well invited a group of one hundred key influencers to a training day at the Under Armour Performance Center in downtown Baltimore.

The group learned the elements of a wellness program and how to get the most out of the FX Well mobile app. Kaiser’s wellness champions were then tasked with training internal teams and leading internal campaigns while FX Well coached them virtually through the app. 


Education is as important as activity. Provide educational resources. If you have a remote team, send them tips on the importance of getting out of the house and going for frequent walks. Share information on healthy eating that people actually want to read – like this article by Nerd Fitness – discussing the science behind dieting.

One of the easiest ways to maintain a steady stream of communication is to send weekly emails (or Yammer posts) with health tips. All you have to do is link to a relevant article – there are millions of them out there ripe for the picking. You can use that same email campaign to reassess your team each quarter to see how they feel about the program.


Piggyback off existing fitness communities. FitBit has over 5 million active users, creating one of the largest fitness communities on the planet. They've recently taken their communal efforts global, using step data to declare Ireland as the fittest country on the planet.

That community still palls in comparison to MyFitnessPal – the wellness and nutrition app that, as of 2016, garnered a user base of over 165 million. Tap these communities for ideas, and find folks among your team who are already using the apps and recruit them to be wellness champions.



3. Health = balance

You’re not alone if you would rather eat a bug than so much as look at broccoli. Or, if you’re like me, you crave bacon all the time – even if I have to hide it away to avoid prying eyes.

Like dieting, your wellness program needs to be balanced. Find ways to encourage people without forcing them into uncomfortable situations.


We’re getting to the heart of happiness.

A 2015 study found that 44% of employees consider stress management as the single most effective way of establishing a culture of wellness.

We’ve all heard the phrase “health and well-being.” We have the tools and expertise for the former, but a balanced program includes a holistic approach.

Stress-management and happiness include pet-friendly work environments, meditation, classes on everything from gardening to languages, group activities, giving out free swag, celebrating odd-ball holidays, and even just having plants around the office.


Office Dog.gif

The ultimate pet-friendly work environment


Don’t be overwhelmed by the possibilities. Start with organizing and balancing health activities, then, as you continue to survey your team and research happiness, take steps to build the wellness component.

Here at 4th Source, we’re dedicating each month to a different aspect of health, measuring steps, tracking nutrition, and even measuring sleep. In expanding our program this year, we are trying to incorporate other areas of wellness such as nutrition and stress management while scheduling and holding “lunch & learns” each quarter.


Always have a challenge running

Make sure to run monthly challenges and pair it with a reward system. Start off with a step challenge, but expand it to team sports, dance competitions, and healthy recipe competitions (I will take on anyone in a guacamole-off).

If you need more ideas, here’s 121 of them.

Regardless of the challenge, it’s imperative that people track their nutritional and health data. Send frequent tips and reminders as part of your communication plan. For us, all the data goes through the FX Well app’s central dashboard (which only HR can see). I can wear my FitBit, log meals into UA MyFitnessPal, and all the data gets tracked.

About that data…



4. Measure or fail

All successful wellness programs measure their progress. While you might be saying “duh,” note that all the failures don’t measure anything. 

Washington University in St. Louis created a short video citing a study where they matched real medical data from an employee wellness program with factory worker output. They found an overall 15% boost in employee productivity (not counting reductions in health insurance and absenteeism), which led to a 500% ROI.

How does one measure? A centralized tool, like the FX Well portal and app, captures all employee wellness data and is device agnostic. The data is only part of the equation, however, and you’ll need people to manage your wellness program.


Place someone in charge of measuring wellness progress. This person, most likely in HR, will have access to a centralized dashboard to see how people are performing against their individual goals. With that data, they can take action to help groups or even individuals stay motivated. This person should also be responsible for communication.


Place someone in charge of measuring productivity. This person will most likely be a department manager, or assigned wellness champion (person in charge of encouraging wellness for their division). Their job is to track productivity at the same time as the wellness program (usually measured as output). Tracking productivity will be different for different companies, so experiment with the data to determine what correlates with wellness.


Place someone in charge of measuring ROI. Yes, you’ll want three people to measure the three categories. The ROI person will come from finance or leadership. Their role will be to take the data and calculate an overall return based on the cost of the program against productivity gains.


Don’t forget the intangibles. VOI, or value of investment comes from gains in morale, customer loyalty, and attention. You can measure VOI through regular surveys. The FX Well portal has a wellness assessment that asks about stress. Pair that with a happiness survey to get a feel for how your people are doing. You can also find out what they dislike about the wellness program and adjust.


Let’s revisit the Indiana National Guard program. It costs the National Guard up to $126,000 to replace someone, which includes training and equipment. Volunteers want to continue to serve, but are often forced to leave due to failing a yearly physical test.

The FX Well team conducted a trial program consisting of 70 at-risk National Guard volunteers, who did not pass their height and weight requirements.

A 6-month virtual training program was designed using the FX Well portal to capture health data. Their mobile app enabled fitness coaches to provide a high-touch personal training experience. At any time, a coach could monitor health performance data captured in the app, and use that data to map the wellness journey for each participant.

Specificity was key. The trainers could track exactly how the National Guard volunteers were performing, and make time-sensitive calls to help them stay motivated. If, for example, one missed a scheduled workout at 3PM, their coach could check in.

The success rate (measured by the number of at-risk people passing the physical test) was about 80%, having a benefit of over $7 million. Indiana's National Guard has since partnered with FX Well to roll out a state-wide wellness program. 



5. Persistence pays off

Encouraging people to act takes two things – time and persistence.

Have you seen the shirtless dancing man video? It shows how a “lone nut” at a rock concert creates a dance movement by being persistent. The lesson from the video is that attracting a following relies on the first followers (your wellness champions) to take part. As more people join, it becomes the norm and desired behavior to be a part of the movement.

So, don’t quit after the first challenge, even if your participation is below 50%. Adjust, rally your champions, and keep at it.



6. Take advantage of the tech

Let’s say you map out your program. You’ve surveyed your team, and found wellness champions. Now what? How can you organize challenges and track all the data at the same time? Some people are wearing Jaw Bones while others have Apple Watches. Some people prefer to use their phones for everything, while others are fanatical about Under Armour smart gear.

The FX Well platform is device agnostic. Your team can choose to keep their fitness and dieting routines, and monitor themselves how they feel most comfortable. As an admin, you get to see all the data flowing in to a centralized dashboard, manage challenges and rewards, view your team’s individual or aggregate data, and measure overall wellness.

Your team will have access to a mobile app (for both iOS and Android) where they can manage their personal data and challenges, take assessments, and access educational content.



This all sounds like a lot of work

It is and it isn’t. If you tried to get from point A to Zappos in a day, forget it. But if you start with the health side, organizing health activities from a central dashboard, set up communications, and seek input from your team, you will have the foundation you need to go all-in on wellness.

Use your communication channels to organize additional wellness activities like community days, where your team gets together to volunteer. These are the types of activities that people generally want to do anyway – which makes them happy.

Let your employees decide what they want, leverage the most interested people to be wellness champions, and take advantage of easy-to-use tech to measure everything. You’re not forcing a lifestyle; you’re starting a movement.

Be persistent, stay active and helpful, and take advantage of technology, and you’ll have a wellness program everyone will love.




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