What Is an Employee Wellness Program?

By Sharon Liao

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 29, 2021

Employees spend a lot of time at work, and it can take a toll on their well-being. To prevent the grind from wearing them down, many workplaces offer employee wellness programs. They’re meant to promote and improve the health and fitness of a company’s workers.

Employee wellness programs can include a wide variety of plans and perks. Each company has its own way of doing things. Some offer office gyms, medical clinics, or sports teams as part of their wellness program. Others have resources to help their staff quit smoking, lose weight, or manage their stress.

What’s the Purpose of Employee Wellness Programs?

Employee wellness programs can boost a company’s bottom line. Healthy workers are less likely to have chronic diseases and take sick days. This, in turn, increases the amount of work that gets done. Employee wellness programs may also benefit companies in these ways:

  • Lower health care and insurance costs
  • Fewer missed days of work
  • More productivity
  • Fewer workplace injuries, workers’ compensation claims, and disability claims
  • Better employee morale
  • Easier to recruit and keep employees

For employees, these benefits include services for free or at a discounted cost. This can give them the push they need to start or keep up with healthy habits, such as exercising or quitting smoking.

Getting health care at work, like flu shots, can also save workers a trip to the doctor and the cost of a copay. There may also be cash rewards or other incentives for taking part. For example, you may get a discount on your health insurance premiums by signing up for an employee wellness program.

How Are Employee Wellness Programs Set Up?

A company decides how its wellness program is structured. The programs may look different at each workplace. At some, management or the human resources department runs the wellness program. At others, it’s offered by the health insurance company.

Some common features of employee wellness programs include:

  • Health risk assessments and screenings: Employees fill out these questionnaires about their health and fitness habits. They’re sometimes coupled with screenings, such as a physical exam or blood pressure test. This can help workers understand their health and what they need to work on. Companies may use this information to offer resources, such as a diabetes prevention program to employees with prediabetes.
  • Vaccination clinics: Some workplaces offer immunizations, such as flu shots, on site.
  • Weight loss and nutrition programs: To help employees reach and maintain a healthy weight, companies may provide nutrition classes, weight loss programs, and other tools.
  • Exercise programs and fitness centers: Certain offices offer an onsite fitness center or discounted gym memberships. Other perks may encourage employees to get moving, such as free pedometers, walking clubs, and company sports teams.
  • Stress reduction resources: These may include access to counselors, online programs, and yoga or mediation classes.
  • Quit-smoking programs: Companies may provide a smoke-free workplace and telephone quit lines.

Do Employee Wellness Programs Work?

These programs can improve employees’ well-being. When scientists followed one company’s wellness program for 15 years, they found that the number of smokers dropped by 75%. There were also half as many workers with high blood pressure and sedentary lifestyles. Meanwhile, another study showed wellness programs cut disability days by 14%, saving the company money overall.

But other research suggests the payoff may not be quite as great. A recent study showed that an employee wellness program increased the number of employees who exercised by 8% and those who actively managed their weight by 14% after a year and a half. But there were no changes in other areas, such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, work performance, and sleep quality.

What Are the Downsides of Employee Wellness Programs?

Helping employees get healthier while saving money seems like a win-win. But there are some criticisms of these programs, such as:

  • Workers may feel pressured to participate. By law, employees can choose whether or not they want to join a wellness program. But they may feel like they have to take part.
  • They could set the stage for discrimination. It’s against the law to discriminate against people with disabilities or health conditions. But giving employers this info could make this possible.
  • They might violate employees’ privacy. Critics say employees shouldn’t have to share health details, like their blood pressure or cholesterol level, with their employer.
  • They’re expensive. Employee wellness programs can cost a lot of money. Companies aren’t guaranteed to save money over the long run.