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Why It’s Time to Rethink These 4 Types of Wellness Programs

There are many downsides to these types of wellness programs, but luckily there's a better way to support employee wellness.

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What do you think of when you hear about employee wellness programs? Do you picture a smoking cessation program? A weight-loss challenge? Nap rooms on-site? Discounts to the local gym? An employee health and wellness plan was traditionally an educational or incentive-based program designed to reduce chronic conditions among employees like obesity, high blood pressure, and high glucose. 

While there are certain upsides to these programs, they don’t necessarily work for today’s diverse and distributed workforce. Let’s take a look at why you should rethink these four types of wellness programs. 

1. Wellness challenges

Workplace wellness challenges are designed to promote healthy behaviors among employees in the hopes of creating long-term positive health outcomes. They are often centered around movement goals, weight loss, smoking cessation, and improved nutrition. Challenge rewards can vary from a monetary prize to something physical like a Peloton machine or Fitbit. 

The problem is that these types of challenges often fail to cause significant change in an employee base because they are short-term and promote a limited view of health. They may also reinforce stigma around body weight and create a stressful environment for employees who struggle with eating disorders or body image issues. 

2. Smoking cessation programs

Other wellness programs target a very specific goal like smoking cessation. Smoking is known to have several strong negative health consequences, raising insurance premiums for organizations with large populations of smokers. Smoking cessation programs are often successful if carefully planned and implemented, saving employers $5,816 per smoking employee in yearly absenteeism, presenteeism, smoking breaks, and healthcare costs. 

However, smoking is a specific health concern that may not be pertinent in every work environment. Smoking rates change significantly based on region, educational level, and age demographics. Additionally, there have been some ethical arguments against smoking cessation programs in the workplace and the undue stress (and even shame)  it can place upon employees. 

3. Stress management programs

Stress and burnout are on the rise. A 2021 survey from Indeed found that 52% of respondents reported feeling burned out. Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times more likely to be searching for a new job, according to Gallup research. It’s clear that helping your employees manage their stress is essential to their health and productivity, and many companies design stress management programs as a way to do that. 

These programs often include on-site or virtual sessions on identifying symptoms of burnout, improving emotional resiliency, coping with job-specific or personal stressors, and maintaining work-life balance. They may also include fitness courses or classes on meditation, yoga, or nutrition. 

While these are great initiatives, they still lack the flexibility to accommodate a wide range of employee needs. Every employee has different priorities, and what works to manage stress for one person may not work for another. For example, the biggest cause of stress for a working parent might be a lack of reliable childcare or a messy home. In their case, flexible childcare benefits or a home services stipend they can use to pay for cleaning services could alleviate stress way more than a one-off course. These courses also often occur during the workday, when overwhelmed employees may not have the time to take them. By providing employees flexible benefits they can use at any time in the way that works best for them, you’ll make a far greater impact on your employees’ stress levels. 

4. On-site office perks 

Just a few years ago in-office wellness amenities were all the rage. An on-site gym can provide employees with a unique opportunity to sneak a workout in on their lunch hour, so they can reap the health and mood benefits of a regular fitness routine. Other organizations have established nap rooms to help employees recharge. This might seem counterintuitive to a successful workday, but a study by NASA showed that naps at work do actually improve productivity. Many companies have also created on-site lunch cafeterias where employees can receive free or subsidized food and snacks. 

These benefits are wonderful perks but fail to address the realities of the post-COVID workplace. Office culture has changed considerably, and many employers now have a remote or hybrid population. If employees are working from home, only in the office two days a week, or spread out across the world, it no longer makes sense to offer perks that are so closely tied to a geographical location. With a more diverse workforce comes a more diverse set of employee needs and wants, so it’s important to ask yourself whether your benefits are flexible enough to accommodate a variety of lifestyles and geographic options.

A new take on wellness 

Today, health programs may come in the form of a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA), where employees can use pre-tax dollars to cut healthcare costs. Many employers are also opting for lifestyle spending accounts (LSAs), where employees get a monthly stipend to use toward wellness or mental health items of their choosing such as groceries, workout classes, meditation apps, or massages.

FSA and HSA programs

FSA and HSA programs are tax-advantaged ways for employers to provide additional health benefits to their employees outside of their insurance plan. Employees are often shocked to learn how many items are eligible for coverage under these plans. Employees can spend money on a wide range of eligible costs, including doctor’s visits, new glasses, sunscreen, flu shots, and even certain health apps. 

While both programs are excellent ways to increase healthcare benefits, there are a few nuances regarding taxes and employee eligibility that HR teams need to examine before implementing. 

Lifestyle spending accounts

Adding wellness as an LSA pillar produces the most flexible wellness options possible, which may be why 70% of companies are considering adding an LSA to their benefits package. LSAs are non-salaried allowances that employees can use according to their personal preferences. They are fully funded by the employer and considered taxable income when spent. You can define eligible expenses that fit the wellness needs of your workforce, including massages, nail salon visits, fitness equipment, gym memberships, grocery delivery, lunch allowances for in-office workers, student loan aid, mental health resources, family support, and personal development.

Mindbody is a global software-as-a-service company that provides cloud-based online scheduling and other business management software for the wellness services industry. Mindbody built a wellness perk program (Be Well and Be Well PT for part-time employees) that allows the company to support a wider set of wellness needs. Today, eligible team members receive a pre-loaded virtual Benecard to use directly for spending. Benepass has a comprehensive “Explore” page and suggestions for how to spend the Be Well benefit. Mindbody knows that wellness is different for each individual and allows employees to spend their funds on: 

  • Exercise: Classes, gym memberships, trainers, outdoor sports, leagues, race fees, gear and equipment 
  • Mental health: Therapy and counseling, apps, coaching, relationship therapy  
  • Mindfulness: Meditation, apps  
  • Productivity and focus: Apps, cognitive training  
  • Spa and salon

Giving employees more choice in how they use their wellness dollars has led to higher engagement and satisfaction, with over 89% of employees participating in the program. 

Read the full case study here or contact us directly at sales@getbenepass.com

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Benepass Team

Our team is committed to sharing stories that help People teams do their jobs and empower employees to get the most out of their benefits.