It’s a common story: With caring intentions, an employer launches a wellness program to address employee interests and needs. The employer starts with a survey to identify activities that employees desire most (healthy eating classes, on-site exercise programs, etc.). Based on this input, the employer carefully coordinates and promotes wellness opportunities, only to find that participation is dismally low.
What went wrong?
Perhaps the employer didn’t account for the influence of emotions on decision making. When people are calm, it’s easier for them to make decisions based on information, logic and longer-term goals. If they are “hot,” their decisions are more likely based on convenience, emotions and the desire for immediate gratification. A hectic work day can thrust an otherwise calm employee into a hot state and can easily derail plans to participate in elective health classes or to choose healthy options.
For more effective participation, employers can consider worksite wellness strategies that are less susceptible to the volatility of emotion-based decision making. Creating workplace health policies and a health-promoting environment demonstrates leadership support for employee health and creates a culture of wellness throughout the organization that makes it easier for employees to make healthy choices.
Here are some examples:
- Meeting well policies outline nutrition guidelines and ways to integrate physical activity into meetings. They ensure that appealing, nutritious foods are available when food is offered and encourage movement that makes meetings more productive and engaging.
- Food in the workplace policies set a clear guideline to ensure at least 50 percent of foods offered in the workplace (e.g., at events, celebrations, cafeterias and in vending machines) are low in sugar, salt and saturated fats, and are nutrient-dense. Such a policy supports employees who want to make healthy choices and creates norms around healthy foods.
- Environments that encourage physical activity include covered bike racks or bike lockers to encourage employees to bike to work. Signs that encourage the use of stairs and visually inviting and well-lit stairwells invite climbing. Maps of nearby walking routes, on-site workout facilities, showers, and/or active workstations such as standing desks or balance ball chairs are other options.
- Environments that support clean air include tobacco-free, vape-free campus policies. On-site nicotine cessation counseling and health insurance benefits that cover the cost of prescription cessation medications is a huge support for employees who smoke or vape.
- Flexible work schedules help support employees who want to integrate physical activity into their day by allowing them to take advantage of wellness opportunities. For example, a flex schedule allows longer lunch breaks so employees can attend gym classes and allows mothers to pump breast milk.
- Marketing and signage publicizes wellness efforts and encourages participation. Share new policies and opportunities through employee newsletters with periodic reminders. Recognize employees who adhere to policies and take advantage of wellness offerings. Place healthy food choices in areas most visible to employees and direct employees with signage.
- Health classes and activities can be a valuable part of a worksite wellness program, but their reach is limited. Workplace policies and environmental supports are more sustainable in the long-term and have a greater chance of improving the health of more employees.
Melissa Martin, MPH, is the chronic disease prevention program coordinator for Clark County Public Health. Read more about workplace wellness on the department’s website, https://www.clark.wa.gov/public-health/worksite-wellness.