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Employers are instituting wellness programs to lure workers back to the office as the coronavirus pandemic winds down. While compensation and hybrid work schedules remain the top incentives, employers see wellness programs as a hedge to encourage office work, increase employee job satisfaction and prevent resignations.

Wellness benefits are intended to provide a more well-rounded, employee-centered work experience – even as they may seek to incentivize employees to work longer hours in the office or at home. Employers offer these benefits to demonstrate they care about the “whole person”, as well as hoping healthier habits result in healthier workers.

Wellness programs range from employer-paid gym memberships to providing healthy snacks in the office pantry. Other incentives include standing desks, massage chairs, game rooms, fitness challenges, healthy cooking classes, company sports teams and pet-friendly workspaces. Some wellness program vendors offer benefits accessible from either an office setting or a home office, such as Zoom happy hours. 

Surveys have found wellness programs typically cost between $150 and $2,000 per employees. Wellness platforms offering employers subscriptions that employees tap into online can cost as little $10 per employee.

Even though employees able to work remotely during the pandemic have enjoyed avoiding commutes, flexible schedules and spending more time with families, many have experienced heightened stress levels. Addressing this stress may be one the most important wellness program prerogatives.

Measuring employee stress levels is not easy or straightforward. Stress and depression may not be topics employees are eager to share with their bosses, either out of fear of losing their jobs or being overlooked for promotions.

The American Institute of Stress reports 62 percent of workers end their day with neck pain, 34 percent of have difficulty falling asleep because of stress and 20 percent have quit jobs because of stress – and these statistics were before the stress of the coronavirus pandemic.

What causes stress can vary by employee, age group and type of work. Employee stress can be very different from the stress perceived by employers or management personnel, which argues for a personal and confidential approach to collecting information about stress levels, causes and cures. And, don’t forget, managers can suffer work-related stress, too.

Wellness programs that address stress vary greatly. For example, one wellness vendor offers “calming” options that include online libraries for stretching exercises, meditation techniques and classes on how to relax. There are programs that offer easy access to mental health counselors, allow stress days-off or sponsor peer conversation groups. Still other programs attempt to bridge wellness for better health and workplace stress management. Some employers just offer cash incentives.

Before launching a wellness program of any type, employers should talk with their workers to learn about their “pain points”, much as marketers seek to discover what problems consumers face that a product could solve. 

There are many issues to consider before standing up a wellness program. How are wellness benefits equitably distributed when a company has multiple offices or operates in multiple states or countries? How do you balance benefits between older and younger, men and women and able-bodied and disabled employees? How feasible is it to offer a basket of possible wellness benefits that an employee can choose? How can stress management tools be offered without infringing on employee privacy? 

How wellness benefits are explained to employees is as important as establishing wellness benefits. Some employees might take offense if an office workout room and healthy snacks are promoted as company-backed pathways to better health. Special care is advisable if stress reduction is a goal of a wellness program.

Fads are another pitfall of wellness programs. A foosball table may have worked years ago, but it wouldn’t be as appealing now as interactive video games. Faddish diets come and go, which can influence what constitutes “healthy snacks”. Stress balls may appeal to some employees, but not others who suffer from serious stress and need professional assistance.

How wellness benefits are explained to employees is as important as establishing wellness benefits.

Wellness programs can be an appealing and appreciated employee benefit. Their appeal and appreciation will increase if employees have a say in what the benefit includes or covers, keeping in mind the employees under the greatest stress may not be forthcoming. Don’t assume a wellness program must have a shiny new hood ornament. After people have been pent up at home for almost two years, an extra week of paid vacation may be all the tonic an employee needs to be refreshed.

The best approach is to seek professional assistance from an individual or a firm experienced in contouring a wellness program to a specific workforce, rather than hawking off-the-shelf programs or products. Pay special attention to the sensitivity and communication skills of who you retain so a well-intentioned employee benefit doesn’t wind up as an employer black eye.