Do Wellness Programs Make Sense for Small Businesses?

The 175,000 employees of the Kaiser Permanente system can take advantage of benefits such as on-site gyms, vending machines filled with healthy options and Instant Recess, a 10-minute physical fitness break in the middle of the day. All 131,000 of GE’s workers have access to company-sponsored Health Coach (access to a trained nurses who can answer a range of health-related questions), NowClinic (24/7 video chats with physicians for quick diagnoses) and Expert Medical Opinion, a program that provides employees with a free second opinion from a Cleveland Clinic Specialist. General Mills offers an on-site health clinic headquarters and meditation rooms in every building of its Minneapolis headquarters campus.

Wellness programs are all the rage with corporations interested in attracting the best and brightest and keeping them happy and healthy. But do they make sense for a small business? After all, if you’re struggling just to provide basic health insurance coverage for your employees, and now you’re expected to cough up the money for  everybody’s gym memberships too?

What Wellness Programs Will Bring to Your Business?

Fact is, you don’t need to be Google to support healthier behaviors for your staff. When properly thought out, executed and monitored, wellness programs can be an affordable perk for small businesses. And the rewards can be quite tangible, according to IIona Bray, author of Healthy Employees, Healthy Business: Easy, Affordable Ways to Promote Workplace Wellness. Bray says that over time, a good workplace wellness program can result in:

  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Greater productivity
  • Increased employee morale and retention
  • Savings on your employer-provided health insurance and worker compensation costs.

With growing concerns over health insurance costs, that last benefit should get your attention. Bray claims that some studies report  reductions of up to 30%, but warns not to expect such dramatic results or to make savings you only motivation. “The median return is currently said to be $3.14 for every $1 spent….But even if your wellness program merely breaks even — with a $1 return for each $1 spent — you’ll come out ahead.”

Getting a Successful Workplace Wellness Program Started

While big business has embraced workplace wellness programs enthusiastically, small companies have been reticent. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that only 50% of small businesses have set up wellness programs, possibly because they think it will be too hard to launch, too time-consuming to administer and just not worth the hassle. With ever-increasing healthcare costs, that attitude could be pennywise and pound foolish, according to an article from major mutual life insurer John Driscoll & Company, Inc. Wellness: A Prescription for Small Business offers a few sensible steps to make the process less daunting:

  • Get input from others. Contact your insurance carrier for suggestions and do a little online research., the website of the Wellness Council of America, is an excellent source of free resources.
  • Poll your employees. Anonymous surveys and/or informal group discussions can help you know what kinds of programs your workforce is likely to embrace. Lack of employee participation is a leading cause of program failure, so knowing what wellness initiatives will be welcome is critical to success.
  • Offer free health screenings or checkups to better understand which wellness measures will yield the greatest benefits to you and your staff. These can help identify key risks such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and weight issues as well as giving you a grasp of overall fitness levels. Keep in mind that these probably need to be voluntary and the results must be anonymous to avoid any run-ins with U.S. laws that protect individual privacy. Ask your insurer to help you navigate federal regulations.
  • Encourage healthy behaviors. Offer free or discounted gym memberships if you can. Many gyms will happily partner with you in exchange for an influx of new members. Put healthy snack choices in your vending machines or honor-system bar. Provide seminars and information that promote healthy habits.
  • Offer carrots. Rewards, whether they’re cash, prizes or extra days off, can help lift participation. Under provisions of the Affordable Care Act, the law now allows employers to increase the reward for workplace wellness program participation by allowing them to lower by 30% (previously 20%) the cost of insurance premiums paid, and up to 50% for smoking cessation programs. 

Be Realistic in Your Expectations

Expecting 100% participation isn’t realistic. Aim for small, incremental successes over time. According to Alan Katz, executive vice president of SeeChange Health Insurance, as little as 25% participation can make a big impact on overall employee health and anything over 70% is very good. “You buy health insurance to improve health of employees. You buy a wellness program to improve the health of your bottom line,” said Katz in an interview with Yahoo Small Business writer Mark Taylor.

Get quotes for small business health insurance coverage and find carriers who offer discounts and assistance with workplace wellness programs here.


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