October 21, 2021

Making Corporate Wellness Programs Work

Wellness programs have become a mainstay of corporate life over the past 20 years. Employers began by focusing on physical wellness programs, largely in response to studies showing how such programs can pay for themselves many times over, especially when these programs help individuals avoid major adverse health events, like a heart attack or stroke.

More recently, employers have also found that prioritizing all aspects of employee well being can yield benefits for both employer and employee. As a result, employee wellness programs now tend to focus on four specific pillars of wellness that employers consider to be within their realm of influence:

1. Physical Wellness: Health screening, disease prevention, exercise, diet and anything that impacts bodily health.

2. Mental/Emotional Wellness: stress reduction, mental health support, meditation, and access to therapeutic support.

3. Financial Wellness: managing money better and more confidently, setting savings and investing goals and priorities, and reducing debt.

4. Social Wellness: creating a sense of belonging and cohesion that allows employees to form strong and supportive relationships at home and at work.

The New Face of Wellness

For growing companies with limited budgets, wellness does not have to include an on-site health clinic or other expensive infrastructure. In fact, some of the most effective wellness activities can develop organically on a shoestring budget. For the past six years, Wonolo, a growing staffing technology company, has held a monthlong physical fitness challenge with cash prizes for its 150 employees.

“Each month an employee serving as commissioner creates teams and sets the rules for points, such as points for breaking a sweat for 30 minutes, drinking a certain amount of water or swapping an unhealthy snack for a healthy one,” said Katie Evans-Reber, the company’s vice president of people/culture. “It helps people meet folks outside of their direct team, get in shape but has just enough competition and money associated with it that people keep it up.”

In fact, one could argue that this event supports all four pillars of wellness—physical activity (physical), a sense of accomplishment and fun (mental/emotional), teamwork and belonging (social), and cash prizes (financial). From the employer’s perspective, events like these do not need to cost a lot of money to make an impact.

Proactive Wellness

The most effective wellness programs help prevent problems from occurring or at least helping employees identify and address problems before they become overwhelming. Accounting technology firm Xero made two small but important changes to support employee wellness. The company replaced its sick leave program with wellbeing leave and began awarding each employee about $500 to spend on some aspect of their personal well being. These changes send the message that employees need to take time off and invest in what is necessary safeguard their wellbeing. “We wanted to make it explicit to our staff that we value their mental health as equally as their physical health and that they can take leave for either of these reasons,” said Nicole Reid, the company’s Chief People Officer.

Perhaps more importantly, this approach also emphasizes the need to be proactive when it comes to overall wellness. “This means shifting from acting only when an issue is already present, for example, when someone is already at breaking point, to recognizing and acting” before a crisis occurs, said Reid. In these cases, the company also incorporates aspects of social wellness in any solution, such as allowing employees to redesign their job or gain access to more resources to support them in their job. For example, the company will work with an employee to identify ways that employee can gain more control over their work and feel more empowered.

Designing an Effective Wellness Program

These companies are not alone in prioritizing wellness. Here are three ways companies can make sure their wellness efforts yield benefits for both employees and the organization.

1. Involve Both Employees and Managers. Developing an effective wellness program should involve both employees and managers. “The only way to know what your employees are looking for is to ask,” said Kelli Clark, consulting firm Aon’s global head of culture and change. “Conduct surveys and make it a priority to listen to what they want from a wellness program.” Aon also trains certain employees how to identify colleagues who are struggling with mental health challenges. These individuals can then talk to their colleagues and make them aware of available wellness resources, including virtual doctors, mindfulness workshops, employee assistance programs, recorded webinars on a variety of wellbeing topics like preventing burnout and creating a healthier lifestyle, and an app that provides online and mobile therapy. Business leaders also need to be on board, with frequent reminders of the importance of employee wellness. “When we provided extra time off to our employees at the height of the (Covid-19) pandemic, we checked in with leaders to ensure employees were using the time,” said Deb LaMere, CHRO of software firm Datasite. “This led to more than 93% of our employees taking advantage of the days off.”

2. Measure Utilization. Once the wellness program is in place, it is important to determine how employees then use that intelligence to improve it. Most vendors that offer wellness-related apps, videos, classes and webinars can provide data on what content employees are using, how often and for how long. For example, if employees begin certain classes but don’t finish them, that can indicate that employees are interested in the topic or activity but are not becoming engaged with the content. “If your employees are not participating or if participation drops off, then you should reconsider that program,” said Mitch Chailland, president of Canal HR.

3. Measure Impact. Wellness programs have an impact in a variety of ways and it is important measure that impact as much as possible. In some cases, this measurement is straightforward. Vendors involved in financial wellness programs can provide date on the number of employees participating and completing programs, as well as aggregate data on improvements in employee savings and debt reduction, for example.

When measuring the impact of its physical wellness programs, SAP North America looks at a mix of data on program usage, annual sick leave taken, medical cost savings, and positive health outcomes. For example, the company measures the results from its programs for employees with certain chronic health conditions based on improvements in blood pressure and blood sugar readings over time, for example, as well as medical costs and the projected prevention of major or critical health events. “Some (programs) require hard ROI but others will rely more on soft cues and engagement surveys so you will need to use your best, qualitative judgment,” said Jason Russell, the company’s head of total rewards.

Maintaining Momentum

Effective wellness programs can make a significant difference to both employers and employees. By remaining vigilant to ensure that these programs remain both fresh and relevant to employees and a good investment for the organization, employers can leverage higher levels of wellness into a competitive advantage.


Media Relations
Marta Carraro

Vice President, Communications


[email protected]

Investor Relations
Jennifer Percy

Senior Vice President, Finance & Treasury


[email protected]

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