8 Employee Wellness Ideas That Would Actually Work

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AlamySimply providing showers to freshen up in will make it more practical for employees to bike to work and exercise on breaks.
By Alison Green

Employers are increasingly launching wellness initiatives aimed at creating a healthier workforce and lowering their own health care costs. But many employees roll their eyes at these efforts or are even actively alienated by programs that push them to make lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or changing their eating habits; they find the initiatives invasive and paternalistic.

What's more, one study by RAND researchers found that workplace wellness programs that encourage employees to lose weight, manage their stress better or make other lifestyle changes, with the aim of saving employers money on health care costs, actually resulted in no net savings at all.

Rather than pushing employees to make lifestyle changes and putting the burden on them, employers would do better to focus on what they themselves can do to promote wellness. Here are eight things that employers could do that would actually work to promote wellness – without alienating employees in the process:1. Provide easy access to healthy meals and snacks. Offices are often well-stocked with candy and chips, with a steady stream of cake and other sugary foods for birthdays and other celebrations. People tend to eat those foods because they're there, but many employees would be delighted to instead have a regular supply of fresh fruit or other healthy snacks. Employers could even arrange weekly fruit deliveries for employees to share or set up arrangements with local restaurants to make healthy soups and salads available at lunchtime.

2. Make it easier for people to exercise. Employers that really want to promote employee wellness could offer standing desks to anyone who wants one. Or they could install showers so employees who bike to work or exercise at lunch have a place to freshen up.

3. Stop the weight-loss competitions. Too often, companies focus on weight loss when they address wellness. Some go so far as to host weight-loss competitions, in which employees or teams compete to see who can lose the most weight. This can be hugely problematic, since not everyone needs to lose weight. Plus, some employees may struggle with eating disorders and would be harmed by this kind of competition. And, of course, weight is a poor substitute for addressing health issues such as cholesterol, high blood pressure and overall nutrition.

4. Offer great health insurance. Workplace wellness initiatives aren't going to ring true if an organization isn't doing its most basic part to promote employee health: offering excellent health insurance benefits. That's the first place employers interested in wellness should look. Do their plans offer free or low-cost preventative care? Do the lower the barriers for doctor's visits and medical attention? If not, the rest of their wellness efforts are unlikely to matter.

5. Discourage people from coming to work sick. Too often, companies say they want sick employees to stay home, but then subtly (or not so subtly) discourage people from using sick time. Managers should be clear with employees that they should be at home taking care of themselves when they're sick, not spreading germs to co-workers at work. Employers should also set an example by heading home themselves when they're sick, because no matter what the official company policy says, people are likely to take their cues from their managers for these cases.

6. Stop requiring doctors' notes for sick employees. Companies also should drop policies that require doctors' notes to use after a certain amount of sick time. It's insulting to employees when they're forced to go to the doctor when they have a cold or flu so they can get a note. This policy drives up health care costs by pushing people into medical offices when they just need rest and over-the-counter medicine, and it encourages people to come to work sick, since that's often easier than getting a medical appointment on short notice.

7. Provide reasonable amounts of paid sick time. Companies that don't provide paid sick time to employees can expect to have many workers come to work sick, thus infecting other workers, who in turn will also show up sick. No company that wants employees to take wellness initiatives seriously can afford to not offer sick leave.

8. Encourage people to actually use their vacation time. Too many American workers don't use all the vacation time they earn, either because they can't get the time off approved or because their managers and workplace culture signal that they would be seen as a slacker if they take time off. Vacation time helps people de-stress and relax, and that's a health measure employers have real control over.
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