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Wellness Programs Keep Workers And Businesses Healthy

Health promotion efforts reduce insurance costs and keep workers feeling fine and fit

How Wellness Programs Work

Typically, companies hire outside vendors who partner with, or subcontract to, specialty providers. Some vendors conduct medical tests or run family histories. Some help employees identify or manage health problems, then steer workers to appropriate programs. Other vendors skip the medical screening altogether and jump right into a program of the worker's choice. In some businesses, a "health coach" oversees the employee's progress; helping to set goals and staying in touch via telephone or online.

Providing incentives so employees want to participate is critical, say experts. Currently more than half of U.S. businesses with wellness initiatives offer incentives. These "bribes" might be lower premiums and copays, cash contributions to health savings and reimbursement accounts, or paying workers to fill out a health risk assessment questionnaire, complete a program or achieve certain results (e.g. lower cholesterol or blood pressure).

Other employers offer flex credits or points that are exchanged for merchandise or money. Some employers have adopted a tough-love approach, slapping on a premium surcharge for those who won't participate in wellness programs and/or get results. (Critics argue that such "forced fitness" encroaches on employees' rights.)

Creating a Wellness Program

There's no one-size-fits-all wellness program. Yet there are universal questions all businesses can ask:

  • What are your goals?
  • Who is your audience? Make sure the program appeals to all age groups and fitness levels.
  • How involved do you want to be? Would you hold an informational health fair, or do you expect employees to get educated on their own? Will you sponsor a series of events? Offer services through one or more private vendors?
  • What do you want to spend?
  • How will you gauge improvement? A longitudinal study to measure employees' health over time? Establishing metrics based on productivity, absenteeism and health insurance claims?
  • What incentives will you offer?
  • What does your attorney say? Have employees signed consent forms before participating in an exercise program? Employers must understand and adhere to two federal laws, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Have you publicized the programs? Do workers grasp their scope, the incentives and the schedule of events? Do they know that the medical information they are volunteering is confidential?

Next page: Best Employer examples of innovative wellness programs. »

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