5 reasons why wellness programs fail and how to avoid them
By: Lindsay Simons
Employee wellness programs are important, but you may be sabotaging yours without knowing it. These days, employee wellness programs succeed or fail based on employee perception. Many companies revamp their programs to meet certain requirements and pass certain metrics. Unfortunately, they’re not successful since most employers forget about one crucial aspect — the employees themselves. Typically, wellness programs are too punitive, centering on what employees are doing wrong instead of why the company cares. Separated from company culture and business goals, this type of employee wellness program is destined to fail.
Here are 5 reasons why wellness programs fail and what you can do to help:
Wellness programs fail for a variety of reasons, but a lot of them boil down to the same root causes. Here are 5 common reasons why wellness programs fail, and how to avoid them.
1. Lack of leadership buy-in and intention
One reason wellness programs fail is due to insufficient leadership buy-in which makes it difficult to orchestrate intention.
Leaders are hyper-focused on financial metrics, which can be at odds with fostering a healthy workplace rooted in well-being. Plus, many leaders may see wellness programs as an expense, not an investment. Employees may even be treated like bundles of risk instead of assets full of potential. Due to this perception, employees don’t see the value in wellness programs and therefore don’t participate. This can lead to poor behavior and attitudes toward the program and its goals.
Another reason for failure is the lack of communication about the importance of well-being from senior leadership to middle management, who then relay that message to their employees. It’s critical to build an environment for well-being improvement that’s enabled by company resources and consistently reinforced by leaders. Each level should understand how their actions contribute to workplace culture.
Here’s what you can do to orchestrate intention:
Provide both in-office and deskless workers with the tools they need for their work environment — and better understand their interests
Incorporate leader-sponsored activities in your well-being program.
Show leadership commitment through personalized videos and posts around key company goals, updates and their own well-being journey.
2. Poor employee communication
Another reason why employee wellness programs fail is due to the inability to communicate benefits and resources to the entire workforce.
Typically, wellness programs must rely on other company resources to get the word out, like email blasts, newsletters or even flyers — and it’s often one-size-fits-all. With most departments in a silo, it’s hard to take inventory of all the communication channels and determine the best ways to reach every employee or their preferred methods. Additionally, the needs of employees change throughout the year — new employees enter the workforce, personal situations change, employees retire.
Having a strategic benefits communication plan will help your employees understand the full value of your company-sponsored benefits, as well as fuel job satisfaction and productivity. Keeping employees informed inspires them to participate and to take action to improve. In fact, according to our research, when information flows freely, employees feel more valued, have higher well-being and are more engaged.
A common reason wellness programs fail is due to the reliance on one channel for communication. Multiple touch points work best in benefits communication, so be sure to inventory all methods available. You can also check to see if your wellness provider has communication capabilities. Year-round messages and reminders give employees the access and prompts they need to make necessary changes throughout the year.
Here’s what you can do to effectively communicate with employees:
Simplify and streamline work with a centralized resource for communicating to your workforce — regardless of location — to give employees easy access to important announcements like plan changes or open enrollment dates.
Target groups with upcoming events and webinars for their specific or underutilized resources.
Survey employees to understand what is going well and what additional support and resources they need or want.
3. Focus on incentives and rewards instead of behavior change
Many wellness programs fail due to the reliance on incentives and the lack of focus on rewarding changing behavior.
According to a survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald & Associates, only 20% of U.S. workers use their employer’s wellness program. While more than 100 million Americans are enrolled in some form of health insurance plan, only 25% of those who have access to an employer-sponsored health plan participate in it.
Wellness incentives for employees remains a popular topic, with many disputes between leaders on the purpose, responsibility and impact of incentives. When it comes to rewarding employees, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are essential to work performance and success in wellness initiatives. You don’t have to choose one or the other — and contrary to widespread belief, they don’t work against each other. Instead, consider them together. Encourage intrinsic motivation rather than relying on external incentives, to help employees feel cared for. Intrinsic motivators tap into the same emotions as employee care — purpose, curiosity, passion — reinforcing the overall feeling of organizational support.
The most common reason why wellness programs fail to make an impact is by focusing too much on participation and not enough on real behavior change.
Here are three ways you can focus on behavior change:
Make sure success metrics are tied to behavior change. This will help employees track progress, stay motivated and reach their goals.
Start small and scale up as needed. If employees don’t see immediate results from their efforts, they’re likely to give up before seeing any results at all. Start with small changes that can be made easily so that employees get quick wins early on.
Provide ongoing support and coaching so that employees feel comfortable asking questions or getting help when they need it most — before they become frustrated or discouraged by the process of trying something new.
4. Unclear goals and difficulty with measurement
It’s hard to measure success when you don’t know what you’re measuring and why. If you don’t have clear goals for your wellness program — like reducing employee healthcare costs or improving engagement and productivity — it makes it difficult to assess whether it’s working or not.
A common reason why corporate wellness programs fail is due to the focus on physical health. Traditionally, measurement of “wellness” success narrowly focuses on medical claims and health cost reduction. But as the industry shifts to a more holistic approach to wellness — and we start to see well-being, social recognition, engagement and benefit aggregation programs merge — traditional forms of measurement are no longer representative of true program success.
Only 28% of organizations surveyed by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans measure the success of their wellness programs with traditional ROI (return on investment).
Great companies invest in the well-being of their people — and in return, employees invest in the well-being of the company. Successful employee wellness programs foster participation and help people build habits that improve their well-being. This impacts how employees perform at work, which leads to better business results.
Here are some tips on how to measure wellness program success:
Survey your employees and create benchmarks around stress, burnout and engagement to reveal how employees are really doing — and how that evolves throughout their tenure.
Identify the program elements that aren’t gelling as well. Replace them with other options, and test again. This is how you’ll hone the program itself and enjoy the benefits of corporate wellness programs.
Instead of sticking to the shallow metrics of completion, consider how you might collect data on the results of that participation. Showing that 93% of people completed the employee engagement survey is great. Showing that 16% more employees feel like the company cares about them compared to the year before is far better.
5. Inability to integrate with current tech-stack
The best way to increase a program’s participation and retention is offering a solution that’s easy to use and has mass appeal to the everyday user. An integrated mobile platform with personalized care provides an experience that empowers employees to stay connected to what matters most.
However, most wellness programs fail because they feel like a standalone experience, and it’s not integrated into all the benefit offerings. Today, it’s possible to use flexible technology to enable various ways to integrate ancillary wellness-related applications and tools. When technology is configured to incorporate all your benefits, it collects data and provides insights on participation and reach.
For employers looking to get employee adoption, well-being programs need a platform that’s easy to use and solves real problems.
Here are three ways to integrate your wellness program:
Streamline how employees find and use their benefits by integrating it all into your wellness program. Access personalized benefits and resources all in one place with a single sign-on.
Foster organic connection and community among teams by creating a single destination for employees to interact with each other and leadership.
Keep wellness and well-being top of mind for employees with notifications and nudges integrated into work tools like Microsoft Teams, Viva, SharePoint, Outlook and more.
There’s a lot to consider when developing a successful employee wellness program in the workplace. And there are plenty of places for things to go wrong. But don’t get discouraged — developing a winning wellness strategy is simply a matter of learning from the past and using the information available today to create the best experience possible. Avoiding these common pitfalls for wellness programs will help you achieve success.
Start your journey to a winning corporate wellness strategy with Limeade
Congratulations to the State of Washington and the HCA team on this amazing recognition, and we thank you for your partnership since 2014.
About the author
Lindsay is the Sr. Director of Acquisition and ABM. She loves connecting companies to Limeade to help improve the employee experience with well-being tech. She's also passionate about fostering a team culture of care and empathy. Outside the office, Lindsay enjoys backpacking and game nights.