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Workplace Wellness Programs: A How-To Guide For Micro-Businesses

Employee health is always a concern for micro-business owners. Even one sick worker who needs time off to recuperate from an illness can disrupt the entire workplace and add stress to healthy workers.

Sure, employees get sick from time to time. But there are steps you can take to help them maintain or even improve their health.

Workplace wellness programs are catching on. MetLife's 8th Annual Employee Benefits Trends Study published in 2010, reported that the number of wellness programs is on the rise. Nearly 40 percent of employers now offer a workplace wellness program, up from about 27 percent in 2005.

These employers are finding that implementing workplace wellness programs are good for business. After all, unhealthy employees cost you money.

For example, the majority of obese adults also suffer from hypertension, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis, or coronary artery or gallbladder disease. In addition, numerous studies have found, smokers, on average, take two to four more sick days than nonsmokers each year.

In the Healthy Workforce 2010 and Beyond guide published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Partnership for Prevention, findings from 56 studies showed that work site health promotion programs resulted in:

  • A 27-percent reduction in sick leave absenteeism
  • A 26-percent reduction in health care costs 
  • A 32-percent reduction in workers’ compensation and disability cost claims
Removing calorie-laden snacks from vending machines, replacing donut boxes with fruit and banning office smoking are just a few easy ways to encourage employees to become healthier. However, these steps probably won’t have a major impact on their health and your bottom line.

Instead, you may want to consider designing a more formal program.

A well-designed workplace wellness program can:
  • Decrease preventive health care costs
  • Reduce stress
  • Decrease absenteeism
  • Increase productivity
Most people think establishing such a program means setting up expensive office gyms or bringing in personal trainers. Fortunately, you can design a workplace wellness program without spending a bundle of money.

This report gives you a few steps to help get you started.

Designate A Program Champion

As a small-business owner, you know that for a project or program to be worthwhile, you must start out with a clear objective, a working budget and specific ways of measuring success. Every good program also requires a focused leader.

You may want to oversee the program or put an employee in charge.

The Wellness Council of America suggests selecting someone who is:
  • Enthusiastic
  • Task oriented
  • Attentive to details 
  • Willing to help others
  • Showing a commitment or interest in living a healthier lifestyle
Having a supportive mentor will go a long way in motivating others to get on board and sustaining the momentum.

Design A Program

Take a look at your employees. Are they smokers, overweight, inactive? Or would they simply benefit from motivation to eat healthy and exercise regularly?

Tell them your plans to establish a workplace wellness program and ask them privately about their individual interests in:
  • Weight loss
  • Physical activity
  • Smoking cessation
  • Disease prevention
  • Stress management
Look at health insurance claims data. If employees are being treated for high blood pressure, you may want to concentrate on sharing information about ways it can be managed.

Online health assessment tools are also available from organizations like the Wellness Council of America.

Launch A Formal Program

You can establish a program with a specific goal such as smoking cessation or decide on a series of healthy initiatives or activities.

This may include things like:
  • Establishing an in-house health library
  • Publishing a regular wellness newsletter with tips and pointers
  • Hosting healthy lunches
  • Bringing in doctors, nurses, smoking cessation specialists, nutritionists and other professionals who can educate workers or help implement programs based on specific goals for a specific period of time
By using a publication like 101 Ways to Wellness or drawing on the list of programs that appear in the National Calendar of Health Observances, many workplace wellness practitioners incorporate a variety of simple activities into an annual schedule of wellness events.

For example, February might include heart smart activities because it’s American Heart Month. March is National Nutrition Month; and the first week of April marks National Workplace Wellness Week.

Many local hospitals and nonprofits like the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society provide speakers who will visit your workplace and conduct educational workshops at no cost.

Local nutritionists and even Weight Watchers offer weight-loss programs right in the comfort of your own office for a nominal fee.

Numerous nonprofits and government agencies also offer free self-directed programs online that can be downloaded.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, offers the Personal Empowerment Plan, which is a 12-week self-directed, work site program. The program materials include workbooks for healthy eating and physical activity targeting employees based on their motivational readiness to change. A coordinator’s kit, promotional brochures and posters are also included in the program.

The American Cancer Society offers the 10-week Active for Life program that uses group strategies to help employees become more physically fit.

Other organizations like the Small Business Wellness Initiative will train your wellness leader or customize workshops and training programs based on your needs.

The most popular programs focus on nutrition, smoking cessation, physical fitness and stress management.

Screenings and assessments can also be beneficial in the early detection of many diseases and conditions and raise awareness of lifestyle risks associated with things like drugs and alcohol.

Motivate Workers To Participate

It would be wonderful if all employees jumped on board simply because they want to maintain or improve their own health, but that’s not always the case.

Some may need a little more motivation.

Providing incentives and rewards demonstrates your commitment to helping them and offers employees—especially the reluctant ones—a little more motivation.

Consider inexpensive incentives such as water bottles, mugs, T-shirts, sports bag or other items that be customized with a group slogan, motivational saying or the recipients’ names.

Offer praise in the form of participation certificates and articles in the employee newsletter. These are a great way to support your employees, inform co-workers of their success, promote the program and keep others motivated.

Reports show that incentives that have a monetary value can dramatically improve the level of participation and boost the odds for success. Consider:
  • Gift Certificates For A Local Spa
  • Bonuses
  • Time Off
  • Local Gym Memberships
If you’re going to offer incentives, experts agree that it’s wise to recognize every participant who achieves a goal. Avoid rewarding individuals for being the best or fastest, which could alienate others and dampen morale.

For example, if employees participate in a fitness program, reward everyone who exercised at least three times each week for, say, three months, and not just the individual who lost the most weight.

Avoid using food as a reward unless it’s healthy, such as a company potluck meal where everyone brings a nutritious item for all to enjoy.

Fund Your Wellness Program

Many of the available resources and tools designed to help you with your wellness program are available for free or cost very little money. Use as many free community resources as possible, such county health departments, chambers of commerce and nonprofit organizations.

If you’re looking for funding resources, a good place to start is with your insurance provider. Many health insurance plans, for example, help cover the cost of quitting smoking.

Small businesses may be able to pay for their programs with government grants. The new health care reform act includes grants totaling $200 million over five years for small companies that start new wellness programs. Companies with fewer than 100 employees qualify for the grants, which will be administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. Some state governments like Massachusetts and nonprofits like Maryland-based Horizon Foundation award workplace wellness grants to small businesses.

If you plan to embark on a costly program, it would be helpful to add it to your annual operating budget.

Consider the expense an investment. If the program is a success, you may well end up saving money and even boost the bottom line as you cut back on absenteeism, decrease health care and medical costs, and increase productivity. You might improve even employee morale and loyalty, too.

Various studies have concluded that businesses can realize $3 to $6 in savings for every dollar spent on health promotion. Many researchers believe the indirect, productivity-related savings are double the more easily measured direct medical care costs.

Evaluate Results

Starting with a clear set of objectives should make it easier to measure results.

Ask questions such as:
  • What percentage of employees who committed to a smoking cessation program was able to kick the habit?
  • How many employees reached goals?
  • How many participated in a program for a pre-determined amount of time?
  • How many attended a certain number of seminars?
You or your designated wellness leader can track progress and talk to employees about the program and whether they believe it’s been a positive experience.

The Wellness Council of America also offers a free online Well Workplace Checklist, which is helpful in assessing the effectiveness of your program. Answers are also used to develop a free customized report detailing ways you can make improvements with your future wellness efforts.


For More Information

These websites can you develop a wellness program for your workplace.

Partnership For Prevention
Provides employers with guidance for establishing healthy workplace practices

The United States Workplace Wellness Alliance
The mission of this national organization is to improve the health of the U.S. workforce by increasing the number businesses that incorporate sound employee health management initiatives.

Wellness Council of America
This nonprofit organization guides small-business employers with a wide variety of workplace wellness tools and resources.