Five ways businesses can build a powerful wellness programme

15 July 2021
Wellness programmes have evolved over the years as businesses recognise the benefits they deliver to both employer and employee. There is now a large body of research showing how employee wellness translates into increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, improved morale and better working relationships, all of which can positively affect an organisation’s bottom line.

It’s not surprising, then, that an estimated 80 percent of US companies with more than 50 employees have a corporate wellness programme in place. And it’s a growth market. The size of the corporate wellness market in the US alone in 2021 stood at $58.2 billion and is estimated to grow to $93.4 billion by 2028.

Corporate wellness is not only growing fast, its nature is changing. From businesses previously offering simple wellness packages such as gym memberships, in-house yoga classes and the occasional massage, wellness has morphed into something much bigger. Current trends include everything from mindfulness, meditation and stress management to telemedicine and financial wellness.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened businesses’ awareness of the importance of employees’ wellbeing, particularly with regard to mental health. The move to working from home presented distinct challenges that could be around for the foreseeable future if, as many predict, the remote-work trend continues.

This article addresses what this shifting landscape means for businesses either implementing or thinking about updating their wellness programmes, and what actions they should be taking now.

Define what wellness means

What does wellness mean to a business? Is it about offering non-work benefits, such as gym membership, or is it more work-related, such as offering mentorship and having a healthy, ergonomically friendly working environment? Or is it about both a physical and psychological sense of wellbeing?

Companies also need to work out exactly what wellness means from a business perspective. As much as a wellness programme will benefit employees, what is the return on investment? Will a programme attract and retain talent, increase productivity or make the workforce more engaged, for example?

If businesses aren't clear from the outset about what they want to get out of a wellness programme both for themselves and their employees, the programme and related communications are likely to be confused and ineffective.

Make sure employees’ needs are met

“One of the main reasons that wellness programmes fail is that they don’t meet the needs of the employee,” says Jackie Neufville, Managing Director at VisionVille. a life-coaching and wellness consultancy. “This is often because a package is bought off the shelf and isn’t tailor made.” 

She highlights how workforces are more diverse now — by age, race, gender, religion, disability and so on — which needs to be reflected in any wellness programme. “There isn’t one-size-fits-all. A good wellness programme should be designed to cater for all employees and to emotional, physical, mental and financial wellbeing.”

To achieve this, businesses creating or updating a wellness programme need to start with employee discussions. This can be achieved through methods such as polling, using focus groups or finding people to act as wellness “champions.”

“The key is finding the communication path that gives you the best data points and feedback from your employees to help you make informed decisions,” says Saul Howerton, Vice President, Advisory, who leads Vistra’s Global HR and Mobility Advisory Services. “Breakouts are positive if you're able to get a truly representative group. And this can be backed up by a survey.”

As wellness becomes more mainstream, Howerton has found that employees seem increasingly willing to take part in these early developmental stages. “You see more employees who want to engage in conversations about mental health and understand their own wellness and where they personally are,” he says. “I think there’s a willingness to talk more openly. During the pandemic, for instance, a lot of people were struggling with both work and life, and it forced us to have conversations and open up about it.”

Understand that a wellness programme will evolve

In recent years, the broad understanding of work-life balance has changed, with employees expecting or even demanding greater employer flexibility. This was accelerated by the widespread shift to remote working during the pandemic.

As much as a wellness programme needs to be tailored, it also needs to be flexible so it meets broader work demands as well as employee needs. 

“Flexibility needs to be built in,” says Neufville. “While the focus right now might be on gym classes, yoga and counselling, tomorrow your people might want to learn a musical instrument, to paint or require cognitive behavioural therapies.”

Once businesses have a wellness programme in place, it’s critical that it is reviewed on a regular basis and revised if necessary. The workplace is constantly evolving, and employees’ expectations around wellness will also change.

Howerton believes in conducting ongoing discussions with employees as often as every six months. “Is the wellness programme meeting your expectations now, and does it achieve the wellness goals that both individuals and the business have? And is it on the right path or are adjustments needed?”

Keep lines of communication open

As much as it’s important to have a structured approach to reviewing a wellness programme, there is a more nuanced element that businesses need to consider. There is a risk that programmes can become “hands-off,” offering employees a shifting, unfocused range of options they can take advantage of. But a business’s approach to wellness can be more strategic and proactive.

“Wellness shifted during the pandemic,” says Howerton. “Many people have difficulty working from home but remain quiet about it. In some instances, businesses will need to have regular check-ins and reach out to people. Is their home set-up working for them, are they coping OK, do they want meetings to be handled differently, such as using phone calls rather than video conferencing? Businesses need to make sure that employees know they are there to support their wellbeing on an ongoing basis.”

Be clear on who is running the wellness programme

“Another reason why wellness programmes fail is that they use existing staff within the company who may well be less engaged or who are juggling it with other responsibilities,” says Neufville. “If businesses do decide to use internal people, there is certainly something to be said about finding out who wants to be involved, and then empowering them.”

Whether a company is creating a new wellness programme or updating an existing one, there is something to be said for using a third-party provider who comes with fresh ideas and energy. Often, a hybrid approach of internal and third-party experts is most effective.

“The overall policy and approach should probably be owned by HR,” says Howerton. “But it's well worth considering an outside party, not only for their expertise in designing the programme, but their relative distance from the company means that employees will often feel more comfortable opening up to them.”


With wellness programmes now an integral part of the corporate world, there is good reason to believe they are only going to become more commonplace and offer an increasing range of choices for employees. 

“We’ve moved way beyond wellness being a box-ticking exercise,” says Howerton. “Benefits are an important part of a compensation package, which employees have come to expect and employers have come to embrace.” 

It’s worth emphasising that wellness programmes can’t be left to stagnate. The need to devise a plan then communicate and deliver it isn’t a one-off, it’s an iterative process, and one that businesses need to pay close attention to.