Employee Benefits Programs · Corporate wellness

Are employee wellness programs worth the cost?

Robert Stoeber Co-founder at Workglue

May 17th, 2016

We are starting to recruit for our software (SaaS) startup and I really want to set the proper tone from the beginning. The pace will be hectic, but I don't want to burn people out, so one way to try helping people maintain a proper balance is to integrate wellness programming into the normal workday. I wouldn't make people participate, but rather encourage them by setting an example and making a massage to relive stress as normal as taking a lunch break. Nutrition counseling, acupuncture, fitness advice and more seem like they would be used, if they were easy to access.

One program that appears to be a good model of the kind of thing I'm considering is Madison Square Wellness:http://www.madisonsquarewellness.com/corporate-wellness/

I've read about recent cutbacks in extravagant benefits in Silicon Valley. What do you folks think? Is the investment (cost) in this kind of program useful and welcomed by employees, or a waste of time/money?

Patrick McQuown Adjunct Brown University

May 20th, 2016

Wellness program, massage tables, free lunches and all those things do almost nothing to contribute to employee happiness and employee productivity.
The things that do matter aren't sexy, you can't really see them and they don't make good fodder for discussion. They are also things that most companies don't have in place.
  • When an employee comes to work do they know what is expected of them? Are their KPIs in place, do they know where the company is going on a micro and macro level. Simple question - you'll be surprised how many employees can't answer that question and go to work unsure of their responsibilites.
  • Do they have the tools to do the job that is required? Again, another simple one that isn't put in place as much as you like.
  • Do they feel their immediate manager is competent and someone they want representing them? It doesn't matter what the CEO says, what matters is their immediate manager. If an employee doesn't like or trust their immediate manager they aren't going to be happy and they will look for employment elsewhere.
Wellness programs and all else work ONLY IF the above is also put into place. No amount of stretching and good recipies are going to compensate for work environment that isn't operating well. When I had my company we had none of that stuff and we we had exceedingly low employee turnover and productivity was higher than anywhere else I've been to or any other company the employees I keep in touch with have been to (well, not totally true - we did offer a free membership to a nearby gym - but that was a perk like their phone plan). 

For a startup - I would put wellness programs near the bottom of the list.   There are so many other things that need to be put in place to determine success as well as employee happiness and productivity.

Toni Sicola Corporate Wellness Director - Consultant at Livzo LLC

May 19th, 2016

I don't agree that nobody gives a damn about employees' wellness. It actually seems that Robert very much gives a damn, hence his questions and concerns abut burnout. I don't think that prioritizing a company's bottom line (productivity) is mutually exclusive to actually caring about the wellbeing of those on the front lines. It's absolutely true that healthy, happy employees create a healthy, happy company, but that doesn't mean that the leader only sees employee wellness as a means to an end. If that's the case, the employees will smell it a mile away and not want to take part in the offerings. Genuine programming geared toward the whole person: mind, body, and spirit, is what makes a successful program. And I totally agree with the comments above about setting up the environment to communicate that self-care is part of the culture of the company. 

Daniel Sanidad Fitness Leader

May 17th, 2016

You can start very simple by setting the environment up to support healthy behaviors
  1. Stand up and stretch every half hour (or hour) as a team.
  2. No snack foods (non-nutritive carbohydrate sources) readily available in office
  3. Sign up sheets for lunchtime walks.
  4. Dimmed screens in the later hours of the work day
  5. Posture checks-in by the doorways
Just a few examples that can help build a healthy team environment, and one that everyone can support. It doesn't take that much effort and, in my opinion, if it's simple then it will be easily followed regularly by everyone.

From there, you can discover what the actual needs are when you do implement a wellness program.

Hope this helps.

Mike Masello

May 18th, 2016

I totally agree that it doesn't need to cost a whole lot of cash. At a prior startup I was able to push through changes to our wellness program via a committee I was a part of that increased team participation over 1200%.  Instead of focusing on the individual, we focused more on team level goals and had drawings for small prizes at the end of the month.  Feel free to reach out if you're interested in hearing more.

Joshua Falcon-Grey Founder of The Quantum Theater

May 22nd, 2016

Great conversation here. I love how everyone comes at the issue from their own expertise - it goes to show that there is no one right answer to the enormous question of the meaning of health.

Fitness, finances, psychology, nutrition, communication, overall company culture - these are all valid and helpful in creating balance. There sure are a lot of aspects to working and being a human.

My own angle, which will fit right in with the others, is in the art of leadership training. I find that when everyone feels empowered to be a leader in some way, this shapes the culture, improves their psychology, motivates them to make better decisions for themselves. Making wellness tools available is very conducive to this. 

I like to focus leadership training efforts through the tools of gamification. This makes work more fun and motivates people to try things they may have never considered. For that matter, any aspect of wellness can be gamified. It's a powerful way to motivate when done well.

When the heads of the company instill a policy of open communication, a fun and playful (yet productive) environment, and most importantly: encouraging self-love, wellness will be a natural result. When self-love is the goal, everything is much more likely to automatically and intuitively fall within the value systems of the employees without the reminders.

Happy to answer any questions about this. Thanks! 


Stacee Mandeville Communication Skills Coach

May 20th, 2016

I agree with the idea that wellness begins in the corporate culture. As a communication skills coach I have seen many companies drowning in poor morale, inefficiency, and anxiety stemming at least in part from poor formal and interpersonal communication skills. Wellness is incredibly important, but if a great massage at 2:00 is undermined by a hostile email, or a useless meeting, then it is a waste of money. Robert, it looks like you are on the right track from the get-go, even considering wellness in your startup.
Kudos, and best of luck! 

Paul Dawson Accomplished Ops, Supply Chain, Sales & Business Unit manager

May 20th, 2016

I am not IT/digital/silicone valley/Gen Y - I am manufacturing - bread, milk, pasta, ready served meals etc. From my experience wellness programs mean jack if the boss is not committed to true wellness through his/her actions. I have worked in orgs with nice gyms and a hard ass boss baying for blood - think about what you are trying to do. A wellness program is not the fix. Patrick in an earlier note hit the nail on the head - have you outlined to your employees their expectations? Are you just conforming? Read up on Maslows hierachy of needs - better still, think about your childhood.....was it the really flash and expensive party that you remember or was it that little something that connected that you will always remember?
Scratch below the surface and we are all the same - we want to be recognized, appreciated, and feel that we are contributing. 
The challenge for you is to create an environment that presses all the buttons of your employees. Don't ASSUME that a wellness program will fix all ills - sadly, most degrees provide technical expertise but zip on managing employees. Your challenge is working out the bit that they haven't taught you at Uni (mainly because they have no idea).
Off the top, if you are really serious about getting people to exercise, do something different - create piano keys on the stairs or something - anything to get ALL employees up and trying to crank out a tune. Following the leader is only being ho hum.

Sudhakar Atmakuru CTO, Director (Business & Marketing) at JT TechnoSoft

May 19th, 2016

Here is my point of view.

This wellness program at big corps is a strategy for better productivity. This program is more considered where a big company's employee's health cost is soaring (due to higher employee-insurance claims, off-work, more sick leaves, lower productivity, etc). Meaning, the attempt is to, increase productivity while decreasing the employees' healthcare cost. Nothing comes free in the corporate world (same applies to employees as well, as the cost is is included in their pay one or other way).
Some companies choose one or more of, nap rooms at work place, monthly team building trips, 1000-2000 cash bonus if employee had an annual health-check and turned out be healthy, cash payments towards a membership purchase for a wellness program (like gym membership, gym equi. purchase, etc) , flexible hours, team building holiday trips/vacations, etc.
There are several to choose from, but the bottom line is to increase productivity at work. Nobody gives a damn about employee's wellness, as it is totally personal choice to be active and healthy. No hard feelings, but it is true. Otherwise we would not have seen America in the list of countries with high rated obese population.

Be clear with your employees and take a feedback from them how many would be interested. If you go ahead with investing a heavy amount in it and nobody wants to do it, then it would turn out to be an expensive thumb-down.


Toni Sicola Corporate Wellness Director - Consultant at Livzo LLC

May 17th, 2016

Hi Robert, as a wellness professional I'm biased but fully believe in the power of a well-executed wellness program. I've been working as the wellness program manager in the hospital setting of a non-profit safety net chain of healthcare facilities in the East Bay of San Francisco for almost 5 years and have watched the culture of our organization shift over time, in part due to the wellness program. I created this wellness program from scratch in 2012 and have shaped it to fit the different cultures of the 10 locations I manage. As a veteran of the non-profit world, I've learned to be very creative with limited funds. But to take it a step further, I actually don't see wellness as a "perk," I see it as a business strategy. I'd love to talk more with you about your ideas and how to build a culture of self-care from the beginning, despite the relative craziness of start up life. I'm now part of the founding team of a corporate wellness start up called Livzo, and I'd be happy to talk with you about the best ways to get a wellness program off the ground.

Shirzad Chamine NY Times Bestselling Author, Positive Intelligence

May 20th, 2016

Based on my research and what I teach at Stanford, I believe the most important element of any wellness program should be help with their psychological well being.  My work defines Positive Intelligence as the percentage of time your mind is serving you as opposed to sabotaging you.  We show that pretty much ALL of a person's stress is actually self-generated by their own internal "Saboteurs."  These Saboteurs (with names like Controller, Judge, Avoider, Victim, Stickler--there are 10 of them) are constantly undermining both how effective we can be, and how fulfilling life and work could be.  We show  that you can dramatically and very quickly change these dynamics using some very simple tools and techniques often described as lifechanging by those experiencing them, as it shifts the internal balance of power in the mind.  You might want to have your employees do the free 5-minute online Saboteur Assessment that will help them to identify and weaken their own Saboteurs.  Better yet, start with your own, as a leader's own Saboteurs tend to create a contagion effect in their companies.  Feel free to reach out to me if I can help further.