The Pillars of an Effective Workplace Wellness Program via HBR

Strategically integrated wellness programs have six strong pillars that simultaneously support their success, regardless of the size of the organization. Construct them well, and your institution could see the kinds of big returns that the 10 companies in our sample have garnered.

Source: Harvard Business Review

1. Multilevel Leadership

Creating a culture of health takes passionate, persistent, and persuasive leadership at all levels—from the C-suite to middle managers to the people who have “wellness” in their job descriptions. It’s easy to find employees who don’t participate in wellness programs. Some cite lack of time, little perceived benefit, or just a distaste for exercise. Others don’t know about available services or blame unsupportive managers. A few think their health is none of the company’s business or mistrust management’s motives. As with any worthwhile initiative, creating a culture of health takes passionate, persistent, and persuasive leadership.

2. Alignment

A wellness program should be a natural extension of a firm’s identity and aspirations. Don’t forget that a cultural shift takes time. It’s not unusual for firms to enter the wellness space with a big splash that subsides to a ripple. As management priorities shift, the opportunity to integrate a culture of health can pass. Ideally, a wellness program should be a natural extension of a firm’s identity and aspirations. 

3. Scope, Relevance, and Quality

Wellness programs must be comprehensive, engaging, and just plain excellent. Otherwise, employees won’t participate. It’s not unusual for a company to think about employee health narrowly. Exercise is exercise, right? But employees’ wellness needs vary tremendously.

4. Accessibility

Aim to make low- or no-cost services a priority. True on-site integration is essential because convenience matters. Our sample companies make low- or no-cost services a priority, and they know that convenience matters. On the SAS main campus, 70% of employees use the recreation center at least twice a week. Director Jack Poll’s explanation: “Our high participation rates are because, when we opened, we thought of all the reasons people wouldn’t use the facility and we worked to eliminate every one of them.” The center is open before and after work and on weekends, and the staff develops a variety of fresh, engaging programs.

5. Partnerships

Active, ongoing collaboration with internal and external partners, including vendors, can provide a program with some of its essential components and many of its desirable enhancements. Internal partnerships help wellness programs gain credibility. At Biltmore, for example, wellness professionals partner with the company’s finance division to vet the cost-effectiveness of various programs. External partnerships with specialized vendors enable wellness staffs to benefit from vendor competencies and infrastructure without extra internal investment. 

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6. Communications

Wellness is not just a mission—it’s a message. How you deliver it can make all the difference. Sensitivity, creativity, and media diversity are the cornerstones. Wellness communications must overcome individual apathy, the sensitivity of personal health issues, and the geographic, demographic, and cultural heterogeneity of employees. The range and complexity of wellness services also can pose challenges.


  • Lower costs

The savings on health care costs alone make for an impressive ROI.

  • Greater productivity

Participants in wellness programs are absent less often and perform better at work than their nonparticipant counterparts. Illness-related absenteeism is an obvious factor in productivity. Less obvious but probably more significant is presenteeism. Research consistently shows that the costs to employers from health-related lost productivity dwarf those of health insurance.

 Presenteeism—when people come to work but underperform because of illness or stress

  • Higher morale

Employee pride, trust, and commitment increase, contributing to a vigorous organization. Most analyses of workplace wellness programs focus on hard-dollar returns: money invested versus money saved. Often overlooked is the potential to strengthen an organization’s culture and to build employee pride, trust, and commitment. The inherent nature of workplace wellness—a partnership between employee and employer—requires trust. Because personal health is such an intimate issue, investment in wellness can, when executed appropriately, create deep bonds.