Wellness programs are all the rage right now among employer alterations to their employee benefit packages. But even with the increased interest, there’s still a low participation rate among their team members. As compensation, many organizations have instigated incentive programs to increase involvement. Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you: Those enrollment incentives don’t work.

While they might provide short-term relief to the enrollment enigma, they only Band-Aid the problem for a short time. Without building a better plan, continued participation will wane and the program as a whole will fall short of employer health initiatives.

Also see: "5 wellness program pitfalls."

All you need is a framework to begin building your new and improved plan. Lucky for you, we’ve already done the heavy lifting:

1) Remember the bottom line. In 2013, organizations spent an average of $521 per employee in the wellness program. Depending on your company size, this can be a lot of money. Determine how much the company can spend on the new program. Don’t stretch that price tag beyond what the organization can feasibly accommodate; the key is remembering your bottom line. You don’t need to install industry leading fitness equipment in the empty and newly renovated office. There are other less costly steps to creating a worthwhile wellness program.

2) Assess internal needs. Using a health risk assessment might be plausible for larger organizations, but that’s not the case for small businesses. Companies with fewer than 50 employees can’t deploy these questionnaires because it violates HIPAA regulations. As an alternative, send out an employee interest survey to see how engaged your staff expects to be.

3) Design program. Building the wellness program from the ground up can be exhaustive. However, it’s all for nothing if the plan doesn’t fit the needs (or personalities) of your employees. Only one in four employees participate in wellness programs at companies that have them. Instead of hiring a wellness coach (which adds up quickly with an average cost of $19.06 an hour), get creative. Set up a points system to reward healthy habits like drinking water or cessation of smoking. After your allotted time frame, give a larger reward based on the number of points each participating employee acquires.

4) Get employees involved. The whole point of a wellness program is to get your team healthy so they aren’t taking sick days or vacation days to go to the doctor or stay home with the flu. However, hosting the program isn’t enough. You have to get the team involved and interested in the program for it to do any good. Lorna Borenstein, founder and CEO of Grokker.com, said: “A thoughtful wellness program advances health in all aspects — physically, emotionally and psychologically — because holistically caring for ourselves is the only path to true total wellness. For employees, this translates into increased productivity, creative thinking, comradery and in turn, greater success for the company as a whole.”

5) Evaluate effectiveness. As with any initiative or internal program, employers need to measure how well it’s working. Without assessing the effectiveness of the program, it’s easy to get lost in the cost of each perk. If employees aren’t buying into the program, what can you change? Is it worth it to even have the program in the first place? Assess your team’s involvement and interest in the plan to determine the value before it accumulates copious amounts of your organization’s time and money.  

When your wellness program begins to fail it’s not a matter of creating new incentives to get employees involved; you need to develop a new plan. Incentives don’t work because they are merely gateways to stagnant programs. While the program might start off with a bang, if it’s not dynamic, it’ll begin to fizzle after a year or two. Instead, create a new program from scratch by surveying employees to glean what they would want from the program.

Remember the bottom line when you design your program, after all, you don’t want to spend money on a program that’s not working. Ultimately, the goal is to get employees engaged (and stay engaged) in the program so they will become healthier and more productive. These building blocks give you the foundation for a solid wellness plan. Are you ready to revamp your clients’ programs?

Olson, CEBS, CMFC, is managing partner at The Olson Group in Omaha, Neb, and EBA’s 2015 Employee Benefit Adviser of the Year. Reach him at tolson@theolsongroup.net.

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