Employee engagement is an increasingly hot topic among leadership teams, and with good reason. After all, who doesn’t want employees who are excited about—and committed to—their jobs and their company?

In past decades, managers tried to increase employee morale and commitment by way of superficial “team building” activities or cringeworthy theme days. Even today, many companies focus on niceties like in-house baristas or ping-pong tables in an effort to attract and retain the best talent.

And while these efforts have been mostly harmless, their effectiveness in creating a happier, more engaged workforce has been questionable at best.

Today, we understand that true employee engagement requires a lot more than Hawaiian shirt days or fridges full of craft beer. What managers may not understand, however, is that they have an incredibly powerful employee engagement tool at their disposal: their corporate wellness program.


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Click to expand each section below (you can use the arrow on the right-hand side to navigate back to the top of the page) and discover how, by designing and managing a thoughtful and comprehensive wellness program, you can improve not only your employees’ wellness, but their engagement.

Before leaping into how your wellness program can improve employee engagement, it’s important to understand what employee engagement truly is, and why it’s so important to focus on it.

What Is Employee Engagement?

What is employee engagementWhile there is no one "official" definition of employee engagement, the definition provided by Gartner reflects the general consensus:

Employee engagement is the state of mind of an employee in which they are both rationally and emotionally committed to their work as a result of their past events, present experiences, and expectations about the future with their organization. This state motivates them to put energy and effort into their work beyond the minimum level required to “just do their job” and stay longer with their organizations.

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, and vice president of consulting and applied research for IBM Watson Health, lent us some 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."

A major misconception that people have about employee engagement, however, is that it’s binary: People are either engaged or they’re not.

As it turns out, employee engagement is a continuum, with employees shifting up and down the scale based on what is taking place at work at that point in time. Even the most highly engaged employee can find themselves slipping down the scale after a bad week.

What does this continuum look like? Here’s a typical breakdown:

DisengagedDisengaged — The only reason these employees are still around is because they feel they have no other options. They do the bare minimum at work and spend the rest of their time looking at job openings. Their only “work friends” are equally unhappy.

Not EngagedNot Engaged — These people have one foot out the door but could be persuaded to stay if things change. They do what they need to do at work, and tend not to mind their tasks, but are generally disenchanted with their working conditions or their manager.

Almost EngagedAlmost Engaged — Reasonably content with their jobs, these folks put in their day and go home, with little concern for the big picture. They generally get along with coworkers and management and function as a reliable, if not passionate, member of the team.

EngagedEngaged — These employees are in it for the long haul. They enjoy their work, see their connection to the big picture, and have formed solid bonds with coworkers. It would take a once-in-a-lifetime offer to lure an engaged employee to a different company.

Highly EngagedHighly Engaged — These employees love their jobs, their company, and its mission. They know that what they do is important to the overarching goal, they view their coworkers as family, and would probably stick around even if they won the lottery.

Why Employee Engagement Matters

The traditional authoritative style of management might say, “Who cares if they’re happy, as long as they do their jobs?” What management ignored for years, however, is that engaged employees dramatically outperform disengaged employees. This can make all the difference between a company that flourishes and one that flounders.

Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report makes it clear:

Business or work units that score in the top quartile of their organization in employee engagement have nearly double the odds of success (based on a composite of financial, customer, retention, safety, quality, shrinkage and absenteeism metrics) when compared with those in the bottom quartile. Those at the 99th percentile have four times the success rate of those at the first percentile.

State-of-the-Workplace Gallup Graph
Source: Gallup's State of the American Workplace report (PDF download)

To be specific, the businesses in the top quartile saw:

  • 41% lower absenteeism
  • 24% lower turnover (for high-turnover organizations like retail and hospitality)
  • 59% lower turnover (for low-turnover organizations)
  • 70% fewer safety incidents
  • 17% higher productivity
  • 20% higher sales
  • 21% higher profitability

Considering that it takes an average of $4000 and 24 days to hire a new worker, reducing turnover by even a couple of percentage points can make a massive difference to the bottom line, particularly in large organizations with high turnover. A double-digit decrease in turnover? That’s enough to send the C-suite into paroxysms of joy.

What Contributes to Engagement in General?

Knowing what engagement looks like and why it matters is only two-thirds of the puzzle. The third element to understanding employee engagement is learning what contributes to and detracts from it.

Both Gallup and The Institute for Employment Studies have researched the main drivers of employee engagement and have uncovered four main categories:

What contributes to employee engagement?

  1. 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 the organization and is their feedback heard and considered?

  2. 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?

  3. Purpose: Do staffers feel like their work contributes to the bigger picture and do they have a clear vision of what that picture is? Are they shown appreciation and recognition for the work that they do?

  4. Community: Is there a culture of caring within the organization? Do employees have a strong sense that the company and their managers care about their well-being? Is there camaraderie between coworkers, all helping each other to be their best?

When any of these four elements are lacking, employees can quickly lose engagement.

This is where your corporate wellness program comes in.

First, it’s important to understand that wellness programs can range from perfunctory efforts (such as posting a few posters encouraging employees to get more active) to comprehensive, thoughtfully designed wellness programs that work for each employee’s individual needs.

Managers who expect a non-comprehensive wellness program to affect employee engagement are highly likely to be sorely disappointed.

On the other hand, putting strategy and insight into designing a wellness program can go a long way toward improving engagement. Here’s how:

Reflective Leadership

Reflective LeadershipImplementing and designing a wellness program forces companies to take a good long look at themselves. How are they supporting employee wellness? Do they practice what they preach? Are their management practices compatible with employee well-being, and what could they be doing differently?

That exercise alone can be transformative. If a company demonstrates real commitment to employee health and well-being by implementing a comprehensive wellness program and aligning their practices to support the goals of that program, it sends a powerful message to employees: "We want you to be well, and we’re taking tangible steps to create the kind of workplace environment that supports your well-being."

Stronger Connections

Stronger ConnectionsAn additional reason why wellness programs improve engagement lies in how it strengthens the sense of community within the team. All too often, we use technology as a replacement for human connections, instead of using it to facilitate and be a conduit for these connections. A wellness program can bring people together in a different way: They’re not pushed together to work on a project. Instead, they’re drawn together to accomplish a personal goal, letting people see a different side of each other, which can strengthen bonds.

Healthier Habits

Healthier HabitsAn employee who makes a habit of being a sleep-deprived, snack-scarfing couch potato will inevitably have a harder time being their best at work. Whether the result is sleepiness, lowered cognitive function, or increased illness, poor health habits can interfere with the energy and creativity we need to shine in the workplace. By encouraging the development of healthier habits, a good wellness program can help employees be sharper and more energetic in and out of the workplace.

Reduced Stress

Reduced StressStress is a serious emotional and physical health issue. Chronic high stress levels can lead to:

  • Memory loss
  • Lowered immune levels
  • Atrophy and reduction of brain mass
  • Increased blood pressure and risk of heart attack, cardiac arrest, or arrhythmias
  • Ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, unhealthy appetite levels
  • Severe emotional conditions like burnout or depression

A wellness program that addresses emotional health and provides employees with effective tools and techniques for coping with stress can help reduce the negative effects of stress on the body, leading to healthier and more engaged employees.

As we mentioned, wellness programs can range from the superficial to the superlative. As it turns out, designing a wellness program that truly moves the needle on employee engagement cannot be a solitary endeavor. Instead, the key is to use a holistic approach, both on the design of the program and in the makeup of the team creating the program.

Holistic Program

The biggest mistake a lot of companies make when designing their wellness program? Focusing solely on physical wellness. Yes, proper nutrition and exercise are enormously important to an employee’s overall well-being. However, if the employee is also experiencing crushing financial stress or is achingly lonely, their wellness will be diminished no matter how many salads they eat or 5K races they run.

Holistic Wellness ProgramInstead, when designing a program, keep in mind that the human body is an interconnected series of systems. At WellRight, we model our programming based on six aspects of wellness, all of which are holistically connected:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Occupational
  • Financial
  • Social
  • Purpose

Holistic Management

In addition to designing a wellness program with the entire person in mind, it should also be designed with the entire organization in mind.

Dr. Ron Goetzel agrees, saying that Human Resources, Organizational Development, Health and Safety, upper management, and the C-suite all tend to live in their own organizational silos. But smart companies will try to break these down during the design and development of their employee wellness program. After all, the goals and KPIs for each group are all affected by the results of the program—and each of these groups holds the power to affect those results in turn.

Holistic Management“The wellness program vendor or manager should become the glue, the integrator, the coordinator, the synthesizer of all of these different departments and focus units and silos in an organization,” explains Dr. Goetzel. “It should bring them together to identify where improvements are needed and what metrics will be measured.” 

There’s an additional, and extremely important, reason why the wellness program cannot be the sole responsibility of the wellness coordinator or Human Resources manager: To attain high levels of employee wellness and engagement, you cannot have other departments sabotaging the wellness program’s efforts.

Here’s an example: The wellness coordinator is developing an initiative to improve physical wellness by encouraging employees to go for a walk during their lunch break. But any employees who attempt this challenge are met with scowls and “Where were you?” from their manager when they return. At that point, only the bravest employees would continue with the challenge, while the rest meekly return to working through lunch.

For a wellness program to truly benefit employee engagement, it must be part of a cohesive effort championed by staff and management alike. Otherwise, it will merely be a small bandage on a gaping wound.

Once you have buy-in from the leadership team, established metrics, and a commitment to a holistic approach to wellness, it’s time to explore different challenges and tactics that can boost engagement.

Focus GroupThis is where input from staff—whether through a survey or focus group—becomes incredibly important. The wellness challenges that stand the best chance of boosting engagement are the challenges that will actually get people excited. Thus, tailoring the wellness challenges to staffers’ individual interests and wellness levels, making sure there’s something for everyone, is a surefire way to get employees fired up.

For example, WellRight client WinterWyman has a deeply enmeshed culture of caring, with many employees spending time in community development initiatives. With the ability to create custom wellness challenges, WinterWyman’s Director of Employee Engagement was able to register those initiatives as reward-eligible wellness activities, meeting employees where they are instead of forcing them to fit a different mold.

Here are some other types of wellness challenges that can spark engagement in the wellness program and in the workplace as a whole:

Wellness Program Ideas to Try

  • The 5 Questions challenge: Ask five or more questions of someone each day for the next 30 days.
  • The Be Grateful challenge: Write down three things you are grateful for each day for 30 days.
  • The Be Positive challenge: Stop complaining for 30 days.
  • The Move It challenge: Take 5,000 steps a day for 25 days out of the next 30 days.
  • The Chill Pill challenge: Relax for 500 minutes during the next 30 days (17 min/ day). Do something you enjoy, something that is not part of your usual routine.
  • The Daily Plan challenge: Take a few minutes each day to plan your day for 30 days.
  • The Free Advice challenge: Find a mentor and meet with them six times over the next several months
  • The Frugal Diner challenge: Prepare your own food and dine in for at least 20 of the next 30 days.

These are just a tiny sample of the plethora of wellness challenges you can implement into your wellness program, appealing to a broad range of interests and aptitudes and increasing the chances of overall employee engagement.

By designing a wellness program that encompasses the whole person (and the whole company), improving engagement is all but guaranteed. But … how will you know if your employees are more engaged at work? Here are the steps to figure out if your wellness program is having the desired impact:

1. Set Your Benchmarks

Set BenchmarksBy this point, you and your leadership team will have decided which metrics to use to measure employee engagement. But to determine whether your efforts are bearing fruit, it’s important to establish a baseline measurement first. For example, if you will be using employee engagement surveys to determine whether the program is working, conduct an engagement survey before the program starts to understand initial engagement levels. If you’re not already measuring big-picture metrics like absenteeism and turnover, this would also be an excellent time to start. By collecting this data, you can start to see patterns.

Imagine being 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.

2. Get Feedback

Get FeedbackEven if you’ll be conducting regular engagement surveys, it’s important to get frequent feedback and input from employees. If the wellness program is being imposed on employees from the top-down, with no say from 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 your 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, you’ll also more easily avoid any missteps that damage your hard-earned engagement levels. Plus, the employees who are on the committee can act as advocates, educators, and influencers, getting their 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 judging. 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 towards improving their engagement levels.

Increased employee engagementCompanies are increasingly realizing that attracting and retaining the best talent requires more than competitive salaries and benefits. While those factors are hugely important, they’re easy for other companies to duplicate, leading to a perpetual struggle to keep your best people from jumping ship.

Instead, focus on creating a culture of caring that listens to what employees want and need from their workplace, and that supports them in their growth. What those wants and needs are can differ greatly by individual, so it's important to make sure your employees all feel comfortable enough to make their needs and priorities heard. 

Then, you can use that knowledge to set your employee engagement plan in place. By focusing on engagement, your company can set itself apart from the competition, creating a culture that helps employees develop genuine enthusiasm for their job and their workplace. A comprehensive and well-planned wellness program can be a linchpin in 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.

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Employee Engagement and Corporate Wellness Programs: What's the Link?