What distinguishes a desirable workplace from the organizational equivalent of a sinking ship? Part of what attracts and retains top-tier employees is the feeling that they are highly valued at their company. For employees, value goes beyond earning a great salary and job title: it’s based on a company’s comprehensive approach to each of their employees’ overall well-being.

Of course, well-being is a very nuanced concept: no one program will satisfy the needs of all employees. This is why some of the most desirable companies offer their employees a choice of both onsite and offsite workplace wellness programs. 

In order to determine what set of programs would work best for your company, it’s vital to understand specifically what these programs are, and how effective they can be.

What is workplace wellness?

The $8 billion dollar workplace wellness industry received a boost from the U.S. federal government when the Affordable Care Act was passed. In essence, the Affordable Care Act allowed employers to save up to 30% on health insurance costs (both in the form of reduced premiums and deductibles) if they enrolled their employees in workplace wellness programs. 

This considerable financial incentive encouraged the creation of a variety of programs addressing the physical, mental, and social aspects of an employee’s life. Many of these programs emphasized the importance of diet and exercise as preventative health measures, offering daily and weekly goals for employees to complete. Other programs focused on the cessation of harmful habits such as smoking, improving mental health access, or creating spaces at work for the discussion of mental health issues. 

Over a decade since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, these programs are still prevalent in the United States. According to a study performed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53% of small firms and 81% of large firms offer some type of workplace wellness program. Among the large firms offering these programs, at least 44% offer their employees incentives to participate, with 20% of these companies capping the incentives at $150 or less, and 20% offering incentives of $1,000 or more.

This same study by the Kaiser Family Foundation also found that in terms of effectiveness, 62% of firms found the programs moderately or very effective in terms of being valued as a benefit, while 56% found the programs moderately or very effective for improving health and well-being among participants. 

For HR professionals, the difficulty associated with choosing workplace wellness programs comes from understanding the relative benefit of each program to their workforce and the organization as a whole. 

Types of workplace wellness programs

What workplace wellness programs offer the most advantages for your organization? The answer to this depends a great deal on the type of program and its fundamental goals.

For HR professionals, it’s important to first define both your work environment and your workplace culture: what kinds of team-building exercises do you currently have in place? Are these exercises concentrated around health promotion, employee engagement, healthy behavior, or some mixture of all three?

Depending on what attributes your company is currently focused on integrating into the company culture, one or more of the following types of workplace wellness programs may work for you.

Onsite Massage Therapy

Many tech companies, faced with incredibly competitive deadlines and long working weeks, have discovered that having an onsite massage therapist is a tremendous benefit to both employees and their managers. Instead of taking the time to leave the office and arrange for a massage, an employee can take a short wellness break within a few feet of their workstation and be refreshed and revived.

Some companies go so far as to make the massage therapist a member of their permanent staff. This inclusion of a massage therapist provides not only the obvious physical relief, but also can boost morale.

In-House Fitness Centers

Similar to the onsite massage therapist, in-house fitness centers offer employees a chance to improve their physical condition without leaving the office premises. However, this employee health benefit is usually suited to a more autonomous company culture. The idea is to foster a sense of belonging with a fairly independent schedule: employees may choose to visit the fitness center before they officially come to work, during their lunch break, or after hours. 

Healthy Food Onsite

For companies with cafeterias or smaller break rooms such as a dedicated kitchen, it’s a good idea to promote healthy eating by offering nutritious snacks and menu items. Instead of only potato chips or sugary drinks, employees can enjoy a tasteful array of healthy options. The offerings don’t have to be bland: healthy eating can be delicious, provided the chef or person in charge of stocking the break room feels free to experiment with different kinds of treats and drinks. 

Diet and Exercise Challenges

This form of workplace wellness program can be an effective way to encourage healthy competition among coworkers while also team-building. In essence, a diet and exercise challenge encourages teams of employees to complete certain health and fitness goals during a set period of time. The team that adheres most successfully to the goals usually receives an incentive or other reward.

These fitness goals can include walking a certain number of steps per day, eating from designated food groups (such as fruits or vegetables), or completing a particular workout routine. It’s important to note that these programs should not be mandatory, and should be orchestrated with a sense of fun: no one should be shamed or made to feel physically inadequate. 

Yoga Classes

Companies that wish to foster a greater sense of belonging among their employees while also bolstering employee health may want to consider holding onsite yoga classes. These classes not only provide a physical benefit, but also encourage the workforce to release stress in a healthy and regular way.

Regular company-wide yoga classes provide a release valve that simultaneously helps employees remain physically flexible and mentally agile. By providing a form of low-impact yet very healthy exercise, organizations tend to see an immediate improvement not only in stress-reduction but in team communication. Working out with one’s coworkers can create a sense of trust and break the ice in social situations. 

Biking to Work

Many companies are located in dense urban centers, which provides a cost-effective yet highly popular employee wellness program: biking to work. Encouraging employees to either walk or bike to work, even if this requires them to take public transportation, helps make exercise a regular part of their day and also reduces carbon emissions.

For some companies that are located in relatively rural areas but have large campuses, providing bicycles as a way to traverse the campus is an excellent investment. The interactive nature of bicycling and walking encourages people to stop staring at screens and instead pay attention to their environment, which often reduces stress and enables creative thought. 

Smoking Cessation

Nicotine and cigarettes tend to contribute to a variety of cardiovascular and other long term health problems. Having voluntary workplace wellness programs that help people to quit not only reduces the immediate harmful effects of nicotine but also creates a sense of gratitude from the employee to the employer.

Smokers who have unsuccessfully attempted to quit their habit will be grateful for a program that provides them with the emotional support and encouragement necessary to make them permanently stop smoking. For the employer, eliminating a potentially costly habit will reduce health care costs (and make for a better-smelling work environment!).

Group Sports/Games

What’s the value of having a team bowling night, or a trip to the laser tag facility, or an outing to the beach to play volleyball? These organized group sports and games are a fun way to not only incorporate more exercise into the company culture, but also to foster bonds between employees.

This type of wellness program is most effective for company cultures that are not strictly hierarchical and like to encourage creative collaboration between coworkers. By creating occasional yet enjoyable outings that are focused on healthy activities, an organization can build a reputation for being a great place to work while also maintaining the health of their employees.

Mental Health Benefits

Perhaps the most crucial of all workplace wellness programs, mental health benefits that allow people to seek help for behavioral or emotion issues are a vital aid to all organizations, regardless of their company culture. If an employee is dealing with issues related to stress, depression, anxiety, or diagnosed mental health conditions, having supportive programs in place that can match employees to self-assessment tests, qualified physicians, and other forms of help at low to no cost will vastly improve employee health.

Related: The importance of mental health for workplace wellness

Do workplace wellness programs work?

You may be wondering how effective, in real terms, are workplace wellness programs? The answer is that some programs work more effectively than others. According to a study performed by Harvard Medical School, workplaces that offered at least one wellness program showed an increase of 13.6% of employees managing their weight and an increase of 8.3% of employees engaging in regular exercise versus workplaces that didn’t offer a wellness program. 

The short-term benefits (18 months or less) of these programs appear to be minimal, but long term studies are currently tracking the benefits of multi-year programs on areas including absenteeism, job performance, and job tenure. 

One thing is clear: programs that advance a negative agenda, such as fat-shaming, or that place too much emphasis on what should be a beneficial experience, thereby transforming it into a potentially humiliating one, do more harm than good. 

Wellness shouldn’t be about meeting a budgetary goal or making an employee feel bad about their bodies or mental health: the point of these programs is to offer assistance in an accessible, welcoming way that ultimately reflects well on the company as a whole. 


Ultimately, improving access to beneficial programs helps employees enhance their health, both mental and physical. At Spring Health, we provide employers with mental health benefits that can dramatically improve an employee’s experience. Whether you’ve been handling workplace wellness programs for years or are considering your options for the first time, contact us to learn more about what Spring Health can offer your team.

Spring Health

November 9, 2020