The balance of power in today’s workplace has shifted—with employee engagement becoming the currency that determines how satisfied, productive, and committed employees will be.
After decades of managers trying to increase employee morale and commitment by way of artificial “team building” activities or outdated costume days, workers aren’t impressed anymore. In fact, less than 25% of employees feel their employers are actually concerned about their well-being.
The result? Heightened manager burnout, reduced employee engagement, and higher turnover.
Long-lasting employee engagement doesn’t come from Hawaiian shirt days or fridges full of craft beer—employees can coordinate those activities on their own. What they need is to know they belong, that they are seen and heard, and that their health and well-being are prioritized.
The good news is that most companies already have an incredibly powerful engagement tool at their disposal to give their employees what they want and need—their corporate wellness program.
Click each section below to discover how designing and managing a personalized and comprehensive wellness program not only improves your employees’ wellness, but also their engagement. (You can use the arrow on the right-hand side to navigate back to the top of the page.)
Before leaping into how your wellness program can improve employee engagement, you need to understand what employee engagement truly is and why it’s crucial in today’s working environment.
Employee Engagement: What It Is and Why It Matters More Than Ever
While there isn’t an "official" definition of employee engagement, Gartner defines it as the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.
Dr. Ron Goetzel, senior scientist and director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies (IHPS) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, provides additional insight on employee engagement:
“There is a psychosocial domain that is really important—how you feel about your job, how you feel about your co-workers, how you feel about your boss, and how you feel about the environment and the culture.”
Where many companies struggle in regards to employee engagement is assuming it’s binary, as though there’s an on/off switch and people are either engaged, or they’re not.
In reality, employee engagement is constantly evolving, with employees shifting up and down an engagement scale based on work-related and life factors. An employee can be highly engaged at one point in the week and fluctuate down the scale based on their wellness needs.
What does this “engagement continuum” look like? Here’s a typical breakdown:
Why Employee Engagement Matters
The traditional style of management used to say, “As long as employees do their jobs, who cares if they’re happy?”
Now, we’re beginning to understand that creating an engaging work culture is not only the kinder, more human thing to do—it’s also smart business.
Highly engaged employees drastically outperform every other employee on the spectrum. Here are a few more stats about highly engaged employees:
- 69% are less likely to look for a new job.
- 71% are less likely to experience burnout.
- 36% are more likely to be happy in their personal lives.
- Engaged employees are five times more likely to recommend their company as a place to work.
The resulting impact on a company is equally significant. Gallup’s "State of the Global Workplace" report highlights that businesses or work units with high engagement have 23% higher profit than those where employees are disengaged. And teams in the top quartile of employee engagement experienced:
- 10% higher customer loyalty/engagement
- 23% higher profitability
- 18% higher sales
- 14% higher production records and evaluations
- 18% lower turnover for high-turnover organizations
- 43% lower turnover for low-turnover organizations
In today’s work environment, companies have to invest about 40% of an employee’s base salary to hire them. The cost is even higher when you factor in lost productivity time—it takes between three to four weeks to fill an average role and about 12 weeks after that for the employee to become productive. All the more reason to engage current employees.
But before you can do that, you need to understand what’s causing disengagement in the first place.
Why Are Employees Disengaged?
Most companies know disengagement is a serious workplace issue, but do they realize just how pervasive it is?
In its “State of the Global Workplace” report, Gallup found that only 35% of employees in the United States are engaged at work.
We can attribute a portion of that employee disengagement to general life outlook. Only 58% of employees currently describe themselves as “thriving” in life, and the same percentage see no change to that state in the future. Global health crises, political unrest, and a host of other external issues are enough to hamper anyone’s outlook on life.
Stress and Anxiety
A growing number of employees are grappling with stress and anxiety. Gallup reports that 52% of employees in the United States experience significant and pervasive stress during the day, 42% say they are worried a good portion of the day, and 23% experience sadness throughout their workday.
That’s a lot of emotions to grapple with—all of which heavily affect an employee’s ability to get work done.
This epidemic of workplace stress has been a known quandary among employers for years. In a 2019 study by the HR Research Institute that polled 778 human resources professionals, 82% said stress was common in their organization and only 11% said their organization was working to help employees address mental health issues.
As workplace stress and burnout continue to skyrocket and employee needs change, employers have begun to take the issue seriously. But it still remains a huge problem for many employees.
Another factor that impacts employee engagement is the degree to which company values aren’t aligned with personal values. Take climate change, for example. As much as 57% of employees are dissatisfied with their employer’s efforts to improve the environment.
Consider companies that promote superficial DEIB initiatives with little to no follow through. Yes, employees in marginalized communities become disenfranchised with their employers, but so do workers who consider themselves allies.
When companies don’t practice what they preach or fail to implement values-based initiatives, there is a direct impact on employee engagement.
What Drives Engagement?
Research performed by the Institute for Employment Studies over two decades ago uncovered four main drivers of employee engagement, which continue to be relevant today:
- Empowerment: Do workers have what they need to do their jobs well? Are they given the authority to make decisions about how their jobs are done? Do they have a voice in their organizations, and is their feedback heard and considered? Do managers create a psychologically safe space for open communication?
- Growth: Are employees given equal opportunity to develop their skills, take on new challenges, and progress into more advanced roles? Are they given permission and space to engage in continuous learning on company time? How constructive is the direction and feedback they receive from management, and how well do managers implement employee feedback? Does every employee feel they have a clear career path? How are marginalized employees supported in setting and accomplishing their goals?
- Purpose: Do employees feel like their work contributes to social change and do they have a clear vision of what that looks like? How transparent are managers with their teams? Are employees shown appreciation and recognition for the work that they do? Do incentives and rewards measure up to accomplishments and resonate with recipients?
- Community: Is there a culture of inclusion within an organization? Is there camaraderie between coworkers, all helping each other to be their best? How deeply rooted are DEI initiatives? Are ERGs put in place that represent all employee groups? How is empathy modeled by senior leaders? Do employees feel like their companies and managers care about their well-being?
Modern-Day Drivers Are Similar
These four drivers coincide with the data gathered in a 2022 report by Mercer, which found that only 63% of employees globally say they are “energized” at work. That’s down from 74% in 2019.
More concerning is the fact that 81% (up from 63%) of global employees are at risk of burnout, with downright alarming numbers among younger generations:
- Gen Z and Millennials: 89%
- Gen X: 78%
- Baby Boomers: 58%
When we look specifically at the drivers contributing to employees who are thriving at work, the top 10 priorities are as follows:
1. Work with purpose
2. Appreciation for work
3. Management advocacy
4. Sense of belonging
5. Empowerment to make decisions
6. Fun work environment
7. Alignment with company values
8. Opportunity to learn new skills
9. Work-life integration
10. Ability to build future wealth
That’s a tall order for companies to fulfill. The good news is that most, if not all, of these drivers can be addressed with your corporate wellness program.
To design a wellness program that truly speaks to what employees want and need, companies must meet employees where they are and offer personalized support. The key is to use a holistic approach, starting with a full inquiry into what’s missing.
Identify What Has to Change
One of the most important priorities that companies should keep in mind as they develop their wellness programs is making sure all employees feel included. This calls for an inclusion audit.
Even if your organization has an existing wellness program, it’s always a good idea to assess its effectiveness by diving into the opinions of employees. Your ultimate goal should be to move beyond the “illusion of inclusion” to actual belonging, especially when it comes to supporting diverse and marginalized populations.
Assess Your DEI Initiatives
Incorporating DEI into your wellness program involves how your company recruits, trains, develops, engages, and promotes people. It’s difficult to attract and engage diverse talent when your staff is far from diverse.
Take a look at your diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Have they moved beyond a binder?
What about your benefits package? Does it account for all groups within your organization?
Think about how social determinants of health impact your employees’ ability to access care. When evaluating whether your network is broad enough, remember that more than 33% of LGBTQ+ people postpone or avoid medical treatment for fear of discrimination. Are your benefit plans inclusive across the spectrum of health care to include gender-affirming care?
This assessment is important. We know DEI initiatives contribute to employee engagement and can result in a:
- 2% increase in on-the-job effort
- 5% increase in employees’ intent to stay with an organization
- 3% increase in individual employee performance
For employers, these benefits can quickly translate to financial success thanks to more productivity and innovation.
Develop a Consistent Program Structure
Once you’ve identified what your program needs, the next step is to structure it in a way that provides stability and consistency. While employee needs vary, the desire for consistency is universal. What does that mean for a corporate wellness program? Predictability.
Year after year, the logistics of registration, communication, rewards, and timing should be predictable. Granted, the actual challenges may change, themes may vary, and innovation will bring about new offerings, but consistency should always prevail.
Consistency helps form healthier habits and increases the likelihood that employees will incorporate wellness programming into their day-to-day activities. Not only will this boost participation, but it will also contribute to overall engagement.
If employees don’t know the basic details—when programming starts, where to register, when the yearly challenge takes place, and how rewards and incentives are distributed—they won’t feel inspired to participate. No matter how many clear and helpful emails you send out, people will become deeply confused if the basic how-to’s change every year, which can lead to reduced engagement.
Establish Administrative Support
Speaking of consistency, program management has to be predictable as well. Many of our most successful clients all have at least one staff resource assigned to managing their wellness program. Ideally, your company will have a full-time resource (or, at the very minimum threshold, a 50% workload allocation).
If your wellness program doesn’t have an advocate whose job it is to manage and market the program, it’s easy for other departments to unknowingly sabotage the program and reduce engagement.
For example, employees who participate in a walking challenge may use their lunchtime to take a walk outside. If managers complain about “availability” every time this happens, most employees will eventually stop participating.
Without a dedicated resource who can communicate what your program is about and why it’s important, your employees may be discouraged from participating. For a wellness program to truly benefit employee engagement, it must be part of a cohesive effort championed by staff and management alike.
Secure Executive Support
Of course, no wellness program will be successful without support at the highest level of your organization.
Just as it is with any other company initiative, executive support is key. Our experience with high-engagement wellness programs has shown that a tenured executive should be an active participant in program oversight. That means your program administrator or wellness coordinator must share as much information as possible—a comprehensive plan, progress reports, and any issues that may arise.
The tenured executive in question would be a great addition to your Wellness Champion Network (WCN), which is the group of stakeholders that plans and promotes wellness activities. Team members should represent your entire employee population, considering diversity of ethnicity, gender, lifestyle, race, religion, disability, location, job level, and other factors.
Your WCN members can act as backup to your part-time or full-time wellness program coordinator, while also serving as ambassadors who promote the program to the rest of your organization.
Offer the Right Amount of Choice
When it comes to giving employees wellness programming choices, we recommend following the philosophy of psychologist Barry Schwartz, who introduced the phenomenon that too many choices prohibit people from making any choice. And we’ve seen this in practice.
When we look at companies with more than 80% wellness program engagement, they offer a limited amount of choices to their employees. That doesn’t mean the choices are the same every quarter or year. But the number of options remains consistent.
So, what is the right number? That depends on your company and your employees, which is a great consideration when you identify what’s needed for your unique workforce. As a guide, we recommend offering up to five choices in a given timeframe. It also helps to allow employees to customize challenges and programs based on their needs.
For example, remote and hybrid employees may need to modify challenges to accommodate their schedules and the logistics of where they work on any given day. Again, providing those modifications as “choices” can go a long way in demonstrating support for your employees’ unique situations and limitations.
Include an Anchor Challenge
One of the most important events to plan within your wellness program is the annual challenge, or an “anchor challenge.”
Typically, it’s a shared activity that takes place at the same time for the same duration every year. An anchor challenge is highly visible and should be branded in a way to stand out, so all employees are aware and excited to participate.
One example that’s been quite successful for clients is a “Shape Up” challenge, where employees are encouraged to perform and track a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day, for at least three days per week.
This type of challenge is highly effective for several reasons:
- Any employee can participate, regardless of where they work.
- It serves as an excellent way to keep your hybrid and/or remote workforce connected.
- The type of exercise is up to the employee and can be adjusted based on mobility and capability.
- Physical activity helps improve overall health, which contributes to lower health care costs for your company.
- Movement can be inspirational and bring about more creativity and innovation.
- Employees can opt to work in teams and develop stronger relationships.
This type of challenge can heavily benefit from including a DEI component, where teams are created across demographics, geographics, and departments. When done right, “Shape Up” challenges can create massive engagement and generate excitement for the rest of the year’s challenges.
The wellness challenges that stand the best chance of boosting engagement are those that will genuinely get people excited.
This means tailoring wellness challenges to employees’ individual interests and wellness journeys. It also means accounting for cultural differences, mobility, and other factors that are inclusive of everyone.
People get excited about wellness when it speaks to their personal motivation triggers. Even something as simple as finding out how competitive your employees are will help you design wellness challenges that get them fired up. (However, make sure to offer fun, noncompetitive challenges, too—even if most of your employees skew a certain way, the most successful wellness programs have plenty of enticing options for every employee.)
Identifying what your unique employee base needs and what’s important to them will shape the types of challenges you offer.
For example, WellRight’s employees value giving back to the community. To foster these values, we all participated in a challenge that directly impacted our local community. Working together, WellRight employees packed nonperishable food items and other needed goods for a local food bank. Because it made the type of impact our employees could align with, this challenge was incredibly rewarding for those who participated, and it also established new connections between team members.
The Food Bank Challenge falls under several of the six aspects of wellness, connecting them holistically in a way that demonstrates how companies can offer wellness challenges that look far beyond just nutrition and exercise.
Six Types of Wellness Challenges
The biggest mistake a lot of companies make when designing their wellness program is focusing entirely on physical wellness, when there are many other elements that contribute to an employee’s overall well-being.
When designing your program, try to include challenges that account for multiple aspects of wellness, including:
Emotional: One World—Learn About Another Culture
Technology has made the world feel much smaller, but we have a long way to go to bridge misconceptions about people with different outlooks and experiences. This challenge can help build that bridge, and it can be designed and/or accomplished in multiple ways.
How This Challenge Works
Challenge employees to spend parts of their day learning about another culture. They can do that by visiting a museum, reading a book or a series of articles, attending a lunch-and-learn, etc. The idea is to offer multiple ways to encourage and guide employees' cultural learning. Employees can consider this challenge checked off once they feel they’ve gained a better understanding of a culture or community, but this is a great challenge to repeat at least annually.
Occupational: Mail Hold
Working from home even part of the time blurs the distinction between work and personal lives. As a result, employees feel obligated to answer emails at all hours. That, combined with a constantly escalating news feed, has left employees feeling overwhelmed and burned out. Employees need to be empowered to say “enough is enough.”
How This Challenge Works
Encourage employees to set a cutoff time for checking emails. Make sure management is on board and supportive, as the entire challenge may fall flat if managers and coworkers cheat the system by texting or sending a DM instead of emailing.
Financial: Frugal Chef—Track Your Food Expenses for 30 Days
Many employees grapple with stretching paychecks to feed themselves or their families. In addition to helping employees cover the increased cost of living, offering this challenge can also help them creatively stretch their dollars a little further.
How This Challenge Works
Invite employees to track their food expenses for 30 days, which will show them where their money is going. Maybe they can make their lunches more often or start saving with coupons. The goal is to reveal where a few painless cost savings could ease the strain of expensive food budgets. You can also provide extra credit if employees track how much food they have to throw out because of non-consumption and spoilage, which is another way to identify cost savings.
Social: Free Advice—Get Inspired by a Mentor
Mentors are great motivators who can assist employees with setting priorities and designing personal and professional goals. Conversations with a mentor can spark new ideas and build confidence.
How This Challenge Works
Ask inspirational, formal, and informal leaders in your organization to make themselves available to employees for mentoring sessions that can range from 20 to 60 minutes. Sessions can take place in person, on the phone, or over Zoom to accommodate remote and hybrid workplaces.
Physical: Fresh Air – Walk Outside 20 Minutes Per Day
Nature is therapeutic. It reduces stress, improves mental health, and increases mindfulness. So does physical exercise, so why not combine the two? And walking is one of the easiest and most beneficial activities you can include in your everyday life. Whether your employees are working in the office or remotely, anyone can benefit from a little fresh air.
How This Challenge Works
Invite participants to take a walk outside for 20 minutes each day for 30 days. Whether it’s walking the dog, adding some extra walking when checking the mail, or walking over to a neighbor’s house, a 20-minute walk is a great—and easy—way to integrate exercise into a daily routine. Plus, being outdoors can jog the mind after being stuck indoors at a desk all day.
Purpose: Shared Values – Define What You Stand for
This challenge speaks to one of the top 10 drivers that contribute to overall engagement.
Today’s employees carry the weight of the world’s problems every day, making it difficult for some to find clarity around what’s important to them. A sanctioned activity that helps them with that reflection contributes to engagement, as well as mental health and wellness.
How This Challenge Works
The Shared Values challenge is about reflecting, defining values, and reconnecting with what matters most. Train your managers and supervisors to lead conversations and exercises designed to define individual and team values. A great resource for this is Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly” values exercise. The goal is to facilitate value-centered discussions and encourage empathetic teams to support each other during stressful times. That can inspire employees to define their own values.
These are just a handful of wellness challenges you can implement within your wellness program. What’s important is that you appeal to a broad range of interests and aptitudes, which will increase overall employee engagement.
By designing a wellness program that accounts for every employee, your chances of improving engagement increase tenfold.
But how will you know if your employees are more engaged at work? While there are a number of ways to measure wellness program success, here are the key metrics to consider.
Employee Retention and Turnover
If you’re experiencing disengagement, your employees will be jumping ship.
Pay attention to your turnover rate. If you’re finding that employees are leaving shortly after their hire dates, look at how long they were working and where they were in the training or active working process. You may find that a wellness program intervention could help early on during an employee’s probationary period to encourage engagement from the onset.
Data has shown that nearly 50% of employees in small- and medium-sized companies say they would remain at their jobs longer because of employer-sponsored wellness programs.
Workers’ Compensation Claims
When employees suffer with chronic health conditions, have unhealthy habits, or limit their physical activity, they are more susceptible to workplace injury and take longer to recover. From there, the disengagement downward spiral accelerates.
Not only will this information help identify an issue with engagement, but it will also help inform the need for customized challenges to re-engage employees who struggle with mobility or mental health issues.
Medical/Health Care Spending
Workplace wellness programs have reduced health care costs for more than 60% of employers. This is primarily because wellness programming can raise the alarm when employees are at risk for developing chronic illness, helping them stave it off altogether or catch it in a more easily manageable stage.
Inversely, when a company’s health care spending spikes, it can be a sign that employees aren’t taking care of their health and well-being—and that is a call for more wellness program engagement.
Absenteeism can be measured in a number of ways. It’s not just about who shows up to work physically or over Zoom. Employees can be emotionally and mentally absent, like they’re simply going through the motions. This is a tell-tale indicator of low engagement.
In addition to paying attention to sick time and paid time off, companies need to train managers to recognize the signs that employees have checked out. Only then can you do something to engage and encourage them to participate in your wellness program.
Morale and Productivity
Related to absenteeism is overall morale and productivity. Negative workplace culture can limit productivity and hamper innovation.
The reason is due to a phenomenon called “emotional contagion,” which describes how low engagement spreads through an organization, especially when the influencers within teams are disengaged. One unhappy or not engaged employee can bring an entire department down.
Begin by Setting Benchmarks
Now that you have a list of metrics that tell you how engaged your workforce is, you need to know how to go about measuring engagement. No progress can be measured without knowing where you’re starting.
Start by establishing benchmarks. For example, if you will be using employee engagement surveys to determine whether your program is working, conduct an engagement survey before the program starts to get a baseline. If you’re going to be leveraging any of the metrics mentioned in the last section, make sure to know exactly where those numbers are before rolling out any new programs.
Additionally, make sure to identify any variables that may impact your measurements, such as major transitions like shifting from remote to in-office work, moving to a new productivity platform, or even changing company leadership. Make note of when those changes happen and take measurements before and after, so their impact on engagement doesn’t obscure your wellness program’s data.
Your ultimate goal is to be able to say, “We implemented our wellness program, and employee engagement levels increased by 18% in six months, according to our survey data. During that time, turnover decreased by 4%, resulting in $250,000 in savings.”
Being able to draw a straight line from your wellness program to employee engagement levels to cost savings? That’s powerful.
Keep Getting Feedback
Even if you’ll be conducting regular engagement surveys and tracking other HR-related metrics, it’s important to get frequent feedback and input from employees. If your wellness program is being imposed on employees from the top-down with no say on their end, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when survey time rolls around.
Instead, enlist employees’ help and ask for opinions every step of the way. Having a broad cross-section of employees on a wellness committee is an excellent way to do this. Not only will you have a better chance of designing a wellness program that will get people engaged, but you’ll also avoid any missteps that may damage your hard-earned engagement levels. Plus, the employees who are on the committee can act as advocates, educators, and influencers, getting teammates excited and informed about the program and improving your chances of success.
Invariably, you’ll have some employees who are not engaged, either with their job or the wellness program. Don’t ignore these people or write them off as having a “bad attitude.” Instead, ask them what they need from their workplace and their wellness program, and listen to their answers without judgment.
A large contributor to disengagement is a sense of powerlessness. Showing these employees that their opinions really matter and that they have the power to effect change can go a long way toward improving engagement levels.
Companies are being confronted with the reality that attracting and retaining the best talent requires more than competitive salaries, benefits, and signing bonuses. While those factors play a big role, they’re easy for other companies to duplicate, leading to a perpetual struggle to keep your best people from jumping ship or doing the bare minimum.
Instead, focus on creating a culture of caring, empathy, and humility that listens to what all employees want and need and supports them in their growth. Those wants and needs can differ greatly based on every possible factor, so make sure all employees feel comfortable enough to communicate their needs and have their priorities heard.
Using that knowledge, you can set your employee engagement plan in place. By focusing on engagement, your company can set itself apart from the competition, creating a culture in which employees thrive and that they brag about to their peers and colleagues.
A comprehensive and well-planned wellness program can be instrumental within your employee engagement strategy, empowering your employees to become happier, healthier, and more engaged versions of themselves, and in turn, bringing your organization to new heights of success.