"How Can I Start a Wellness Program at My Company?"

Jeanne Puglisi Sherwood knows corporate wellness programs can save lives. The president of WellAdvantage has seen more than her share of “aha moments” from employees participating in biometric screening events her company helped set up. The one that sticks in her mind most vividly was a man who complained that he was having frequent headaches and was “seeing spots.” His blood pressure was through the roof. “This person was getting ready to have a stroke,” Sherwood explains. Without company-sponsored health screening and wellness initiatives, the man might have ignored the signs until it was too late.

It’s easy to have a head-in-the-sand mentality about health issues, especially in the daily rush to meet deadlines and make sales. But even the smallest companies benefit from promoting healthier habits, Sherwood says, and there are ways to put together effective wellness programs without breaking the bank. Here are the key steps:

Find out what people want. The first step in creating a cost-effective program is making sure it’s going to be used. Amie Hoff, CEO and founder of Fit At Work Solutions, recommends setting up a simple survey to determine what employees want help with. Are they struggling with weight loss or gain, healthy eating habits, stress levels or something else? Their answers might surprise you. “Once you take that blueprint of what everyone needs, you can then develop a program based on that,” Hoff says.

Leverage what you already have. Even without a formal program in place, many companies already sponsor events and provide employee perks that are easily incorporated into a wellness program, says Maria Mazursky, CEO of wellness company TourDeFit.com. For example, firms that provide occasional lunches for staff can use the opportunity to educate workers on healthier options, she says. Maybe a group of employees has already put together an informal walking or running group that you can expand on, Hoff says. Or perhaps a team member is a yoga enthusiast and is willing to lead her peers in simple stretching exercises once a week. Including employees in development will help boost engagement and enthusiasm in your fledgling wellness program.

Look for partnerships. Health fairs and biometric screening days can be a useful part of corporate wellness programs, but they also can be expensive to put together. Scout out other health-oriented businesses and groups in the community willing to participate for free for the chance to show off their wares, Sherwood says. Inquire at local gyms and yoga studios to see if they’ll give a group discount for your employees. Whatever you decide on, be sure you acknowledge and thank businesses and organizations that have donated their time and services, Mazursky warns. “You don’t want to burn your bridges,” she says.

Once you have a program in place, it’s important to monitor employee engagement and results to ensure that any money you’ve invested is well-spent. For large companies, the return on investment can be significant. WellAdvantage helped one client reduce employee health risks by 40% in the span of a year. Another received a $65,000 rebate from their health-care provider. Though smaller companies aren’t likely to see such big returns, there are still plenty of potential benefits, like improved productivity and higher retention rates, says Kerre Aufsesser, a health and wellness manager at WellAdvantage. “There’s been a huge shift in the way people are looking at wellness programs,” she adds. “Rather than focus on ROI, they’re looking at the value of investment, the intangible things that you’re getting in return for the program.”– Theresa Hegel

Wellness Toolkit

There are plenty of resources online to help companies launch and refine wellness programs. Here are a few places to look:

American Cancer Society: Among the many resources offered by the ACS (www.acsworkplacesolutions.com) are weight-loss and smoking cessation programs.

Mercer Hero Scorecard: This free evaluation (hero-health.org/scorecard) measures employee health management and is designed to help firms improve wellness programs.

The National Wellness Institute: This organization’s website (www.nationalwellness.org) has a lot of free resources and assessments for employers.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC has a health scorecard (www.cdc.gov/healthscorecard) to help employers assess wellness efforts. –TH