What Makes an Employee Wellness Program Good?

Best Practices

What really does make a wellness program good or a good wellness program?  I see many other blogs and posts that essentially all say the same thing – all very by-the book so-called “best practices” and admittedly, this is a good starting point.  Most of that advice may often times be difficult to translate into real-world action.  What if you did not get the opportunity to start with a “needs assessment?”  What if you don’t have the time or resources to conduct one – heck what if you have no idea what a needs assessment is or should assess???

This well-intentioned advice on best practices, is just that – practices – things to do – a checklist of activities.  What makes a good wellness program is focusing first and foremost on WHY – the overall WHY for the program/initiative and the WHY behind those best practices.  Here is what I have seen from my experience running a long-standing wellness program through changes in leadership, program branding and internal/external turmoil – a program that continues to operate successfully today

Employee Driven

Best practice demands a wellness committee.  While they have value, I have found that too often the committee is subject to the special interest trap.  Committee members tend to be those ALREADY doing what they should be for their own health.  They know what works for them, so they think that will work for everyone else.  You don’t need a wellness committee to ensure your program is employee driven.  What can you do instead?

  • Ask for feedback – send out a question in an email, create a survey, walk around and ask people. Take advantage of every opportunity to ask for feedback – don’t wait for an annual climate or interest survey.  You should be hearing from employees ALL THE TIME.  Find out what they think of an initiative before you release it.  Make sure they feel their voice is being heard.
  • Seek professional guidance – a wellness consultant can be extremely helpful in guiding the discussion and programming to avoid the special interest trap. They can guide you to the right “things” to do to match up with the WHY and balance it with the feedback.
  • Keep employees engaged in implementing initiatives. We found our most successful initiatives were the ones where employees were involved in the planning, execution and evaluation – they owned those initiatives.

Executive Support

OK, I admit, everyone else says this too.  So WHY is it so important?  Obvious reason is you need some resources – be they people (i.e. you and your time) or financial.  But more important here is what is their WHY for supporting the effort?  Is this effort really for the employees?  Are they willing to set an example by actively participating?  Will they provide the leadership to see the program grow and sustain through the ups and downs of the business cycle?  And do they see the value of having a healthy and productive workforce, not just an ROI?  Which leads me to my next point…

NOT focused on ROI

Let’s face it, looking for a return on the investment in wellness has been the cornerstone of justification ever since the industry started.  Fact is, no one can really prove it.  Those that try end up being very short-sighted and tend to use programs that others have described as the “poke, prod and pry” approach.  Employees feel like wellness is being done to them.  This is the opposite of “employee-driven”.

Connects with employees where they are at – Right now

Not everyone is ready to make a change in their behavior right now.  In fact, most employees are probably all over the map in terms of what they perceive as changes they need to make and when they might be ready to change them.  Key here is to look at multiple delivery channels.  Sounds expensive?  No.  For example, supporting movement in many forms – not just a subsidized gym membership.  Is your physical environment conducive to walking?  What about other sports or activities involving movement?  Got room for a ping-pong table?  Make sure the programs can be tailored to the individual – in the communication and delivery.


Not talking “green” here, more like will the program be able to survive (even thrive) over the long haul?  In the 19 years I ran a program within a Fortune 500 company, we re-branded three times, survived multiple corporate restructurings and downsizings, re-adjusted to adversity and flourished when it was broken up into three component parts.  We were able to do so because we were very efficient with our resources – in other words our budget and resource allocation was very low and did not brand us with a big target come budget time.  When we did have to run flat or even reduce budget year-over-year, we were able to adjust with little to no impact on employees.  We were not dependent upon subsidies – in fact a majority of our programs/initiatives were funded by participant fees – yup, that’s right, the employees paid for it!  Another way to keep it employee driven.

Change did come and it came often.  Being flexible and creative were paramount to our success.  Keep looking for a way to make it happen.  Adapt to the change within the company and culture as time goes on.  What worked last year or 3 years ago may not work now.

Limit the use of incentives.  They should be limited to a specific initiative, limited in time and scope and targeted.  Use them only when necessary – say to encourage participation in a typical slow time of year.  DO NOT base your entire program on incentives – it gets costlier every year, they lose their effectiveness and employees feel they are being manipulated (see previous comments above).

Shape and reflect the culture

Changing from an un-supportive, unhealthful culture to one of health and well-being is a primary goal of all the best programs.  But don’t forget to take into account those facets of the existing culture that should be reflected in your program.  What are the generational dynamics?  A bunch of millennials or are you a mix of GenXer’s and boomers?  Where are employees from?  What is the gender make-up?  How about families?  Are you urban, suburban, industrial or rural?  White-collar or blue collar?

Focus on movement, nutrition, stress and sleep

Keep it simple.  TOVI has focused down to Body (movement), Mind and Food.  These are the key factors impacting everyone’s health and well-being and you do not need a health assessment questionnaire or biometric screening to tell you so.  Your employees know this too.  These key areas are best supported by the scientific literature.  I call fitness (movement) the “gateway drug” to wellness because it has been proven to impact all the other areas – improves sleep, relieves stress, reduces appetite, improves cognition, improves mood and feelings of depression as well as improving the body systems for a stronger more resilient person.

The question we started with is “what makes a good wellness program?”  I contend that it is the WHY that makes a good wellness program – WHY you need to be employee-driven, WHY you need that executive support, WHY you connect with employees where they are at, WHY you keep it simple – Body, Mind & Food, WHY you don’t worry about the ROI so that you can have a sustainable program that not only shapes the culture but reflects it as well!


Dave Beadle, M.S.

Written by Dave Beadle, M.S.

Speaker | Innovator | Founder at DH Beadle Consulting