Wellness Programs: 5 Steps To Starting One At Your Workplace

Krista Gray
February 20, 2019

Wellness programs are often essential for those companies that aim to create a high performance environment without also fostering a burnout cycle. According to Sarah Kalamchi, who focuses on employee experience/wellness at Airbnb and has built wellness programs for startups and corporations, people perform better when they feel they’re taken care of.

“Allowing employees to look after their health and well-being is a big benefit that improves performance,” she notes. “It also fosters feelings of loyalty and connection to the company. While corporate wellness used to be associated with gym reimbursements and smoking cessation programs, programs have broadened over the past few years. It’s exciting and encouraging to see.”

So what’s different today? According to Kalamchi, it all stems from the realization that wellness encompasses many facets and is unique to each employee who works for the company.

“Traditional perks like gym memberships are great to have, but the programs that recognize there is not just one standard path to wellness are the ones that are most successful,” she says.

“Current programs think about the whole person and how to help individuals maximize their potential inside and outside of the office. Stress reduction, time management, and personal growth programs have finally found their way under the ‘wellness’ umbrella.”

In this article, we’ll go through 5 steps to building a wellness program at your workplace.

Evaluate Your Employee Population

“Surveys are a great place to start when it comes to understanding your team — gather information about what people are interested in but might not be doing already,” Kalamchi says.

“For example, many people find a way to complete cardio, but meditation is something we know we should do but some help getting started. Opportunities like this help employees expand their wellness toolkit.”

When formulating questions for your evaluation survey, Kalamchi suggests considering:
    - your team size and population demographics.

    - activities teammates are interested in, already do, and don’t do.

    - employee commutes.

    - external factors that influence schedules, such as childcare pickup.

Google, for example, actually has a People and Innovation Lab (PiLab) to do research and figure out new ways to keep their employees happy and healthy!

Just Start

Now you may not be able to afford an entire division to research employee wellness like Google, but, like Kalamchi says, the best way to start is to just start.

“Many companies feel intimidated at the thought of building a wellness program. In reality, you don't need a huge budget, an onsite gym, or even a dedicated wellness team or a full-fledged ‘program’ right off the bat; just a few events or group gatherings is a solid place to begin.”

Try something small and then collect feedback from employees. If they like it, start to build on that and expand the program from there. This way you’re creating something that fits your company culture, instead of forcing a boilerplate program on to them.

And by collecting feedback every step of the way, you’ll avoid investing in something employees don’t like or want.

Support Employee-hosted Events

One of the most effective and low-cost ways to build a wellness program is through employee-to-employee hosted activities.

“Employees are often an untapped pool of talent and love the opportunity to share their extracurricular interests with others,” Kalamchi notes.

Have teammates who love to run? See how the company can support them in organizing a running team.

Know a Soul Cycle enthusiast or have a colleague who’s a regular at Barry’s Bootcamp? Check in and find out if they’d be interested in organizing a team event.

Are there any teammates who are training for fitness certifications? They’ll likely welcome an opportunity to practice what they’re learning.

Microsoft encourages employee-led activities by contributing to them. For example, when employees volunteer at an organization, they offer a $17/hour donation.

“I’ve met colleagues who were working towards yoga teacher training certification and wanted an opportunity to practice teaching classes with a group they were comfortable with (and had little-to-no risk involved),” Kalamchi remembers.

Bring Practitioners On-site

Kalamchi is a proponent of bringing practitioners like yoga teachers, massage therapists, and acupuncturists onsite. This only requires booking a conference room and communicating to employees that the service is available.

“Most practitioners will offer discounted rates if they don't have to pay overhead for space which can make sessions that much more affordable for employees who opt in! And, employees benefit from discounted rates and time saved by having a practitioner onsite.”

Many practitioners will also be available for one-off classes, making it easy for you to test them out and collect feedback from employees about which ones they want to attend on a regular basis.

You may also want to explore other on-site amenities once you’re at a certain size. Many companies have on-site gyms, meditation rooms, naps rooms. Genentech even has an on-site farmer’s market!

Re-evaluate and Formalize Your Program

Once you’ve hosted classes, events, or introduced practitioners and experiences to your team, it’s time to check in to re-evaluate.

As we’ve mentioned earlier, Kalamchi suggests viewing each class, event, or practitioner session as a data point to identify what employees are interested in.

“To evaluate success, keep track of attendance, collect feedback, and measure against your objectives. Focus on engagement and employee satisfaction, rather than following into an ROI trap, even though you might be able to calculate returns immediately, you should look to see decreased sick days, better employee engagement, and higher retention rates in the long run.”

Once you know what’s working, you’ll be in great shape to present your findings, forecast a budget, and build out a regular calendar of offerings your team will love.

Get Started!

If there’s one thing you take away from this, it’s that the best way to start a wellness program is to try something small based on employees’ initial preferences and then build from there. Remember to track the performance of your program along the way and keep collecting feedback.

In time, your program will evolve based on employee preferences and you’ll have a formal program for all of them.

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