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5 Reasons Why Workplace Wellness Programs Fail


Creating a workplace wellness program is hard work.

Between lobbying senior leaders to get buy-in, creating programming that’ll get people excited, and sending what feels like a million communications (while hoping desperately you’re not annoying the entire staff)—well, the entire process can feel like an out-of-control three-ring circus.

And then the worst case scenario happens. Despite your best efforts, your wellness program … fizzles.

Your engagement is low, participation is unpredictable, and the whole thing that you’ve worked so hard on is at risk of being eliminated altogether. It’s pretty demoralizing.

We can tell you this: You’re not alone. And we have good news. Helping companies rescue their workplace wellness programs from failure is very much what we do. (We even wrote a guide on it called Best Practices for Workplace Wellness Program Success. Take a look at it, and then let us know what changes you made and what happened—we love hearing about the programs you’re working on!)

For now, let’s look at the reasons why workplace wellness programs fail. We’ll also give you some helpful suggestions to get your program back on track.

First off, it’s going to be ok—all is not lost. You can prevent your program from failing if you make some needed changes.

Let’s start at the top.

Reason #1: Leadership Support Is Limited

For a companywide program to succeed, it needs buy-in from leadership at the very least. And ideally, it should have active and visible participation among senior executives. If that isn’t the case for you, that lack of leadership support can cause your wellness program to fail.

Not only do you need to have approval, endorsement and involvement from your C-suite, it’s also a good idea to designate a primary leader who can help you direct and promote wellness activities. Trust us: Without leadership support, your wellness program won’t get very far.

Let Your Most Seasoned Executive Serve as an Influencer

Half the battle of managing your workplace wellness program is convincing people to participate.

We’ve found that the most successful programs have a seasoned senior executive at the helm—someone with a long tenure and the respect of most employees. (So, asking the brand-new chief financial officer to spearhead this program may not work in your favor, no matter how enthusiastic they are.)

This person is going to be your main influencer. No, they don’t have to post selfies of every workout on Instagram, but do ask them to be an active advocate for your wellness program. Make sure their participation is highly visible so employees are more encouraged to participate.

Your senior executive influencer may also serve as the chairperson for your Wellness Champion Network.

Establish a Wellness Champion Network

Companies often forget to create a Wellness Champion Network (WCN), but it’s a group that’s critical to your program’s success. This team of people works together to plan and promote wellness activities. The team members should be representative of your entire employee population, including diversity of ethnicity, gender, lifestyle, race, religion, disability, location, job level and other factors.

Your WCN members serve as ambassadors, promoting your wellness program to the rest of the staff (especially their peers), so you’re not doing it all alone.

Reason #2: Program Structure Lacks Consistency

No matter what people tell you, they want predictability—especially in their work environment.

That means if your program doesn’t have a solid structure—timeframes, number of challenges, clearly defined expectations, and communication about incentives and rewards—employees won’t bite. They need to know what to expect.

Wellness programs that fail are typically missing three things when it comes to program structure:

  • A consistent programming format
  • At least one companywide event each year
  • A resource dedicated to managing the program

Let’s look at how you can fix what’s missing.

Use the Same Format Year-After-Year

If employees don’t know when your wellness programming starts, when they need to sign up for challenges, and when the program ends, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have low engagement.

Successful wellness programs usually have seasons of challenges that begin around the same time. The challenges may vary but the structure remains the same. For example, you might start your individual challenges in February. Everyone knows that sign up starts in January. And they know how to earn and redeem points for rewards. Why? Because that part doesn’t change. This consistency and predictability make it easy for employees to participate.

Set the Tone with an Anchor Challenge

Your wellness program is ultimately designed to improve the overall health of your company. If your employees don’t see how they fit into that bigger picture, they’re less likely to participate. This is where an anchor challenge helps.

An anchor challenge is an annual event that brings all employees together—think company picnic on steroids. It’s the perfect opportunity to introduce challenges, incentives, rewards and goals for the year.

If you can get everyone together in the same place for your anchor challenge, it’s incredibly powerful and motivating. But even while separated from each other, our clients have created some pretty amazing remote anchor challenges during the peak of the pandemic.

(If your company is adopting a hybrid workspace model, an anchor challenge is also excellent for keeping your workforce connected—you may even want to have more than one.)

Identify a Dedicated Resource

We’ve all seen it. The management-by-whoever-is-available-right-now approach. It’s pretty much a death knell for any new program.

And while your senior executive influencer and WCN members provide plenty of value to your program, someone has to actually make the doughnuts. You need a dedicated resource to be the wellness program coordinator. Full-time would be fantastic, but we know for many companies it’s not realistic. The threshold for a successful program is to allocate a resource 50% of the time.

Having the right people leading your workplace wellness program and a consistent structure will definitely help right the ship.

Reason #3: Incentives Don’t Motivate Participation

Say you have great sign-up numbers for wellness challenges, but employees continuously drop out before the challenges are complete. Or you can’t get enough participation in challenges to justify doing them. In either case, your program will ultimately lose support from senior leaders, and that’s the ballgame.

That makes incentives super important—and not just any incentives. The point of offering employees incentives and rewards is to encourage them to complete the challenges. But if your incentives are “meh” you’re not going to get “wow” results.

Survey Employees to Design a Persuasive Incentive Program

One of the main reasons why workplace wellness program incentives aren’t effective is because they aren’t what employees want. You can solve that by asking them.

Find out what they really want—and give it to them if you can. You can do this with surveys and feedback mechanisms about each challenge that gauge how successful it was and how persuasive your incentives are. In fact, a great question to ask is whether the incentive was worth the work. If the answer is mostly negative, you need to rethink your effort to reward ratio and sweeten the pot a bit (or lower the bar).

And don’t just ask employees once and assume that’s what they want the following year. People change. They get married, they get divorced, they have children, they lose loved ones, they throw out their backs lifting the dog into bed … and they grow. You need to adapt your incentives with your employee population.

Reason #4: Programming Doesn’t Address Employee Needs

This idea of catering to what employees want pertains to challenges and programming as well. Many programs fail because employee needs just aren’t being addressed.

Employees get excited about wellness when the challenges and programming you offer appeal to what actually motivates them. Even something as simple as finding out how competitive your people are will help you design wellness challenges that get them fired up (but make sure to offer fun, noncompetitive challenges too—the most successful wellness programs have plenty of enticing options for every single staff member.)

Again, this is where asking your employees what they want is important. Without that feedback loop between your Wellness Champion Network, your wellness coordinator and your employees, your wellness program is more likely to miss the mark.

Once you have that guidance, it’s time to create a great program, learn what types of challenges get the most participation, and make adjustments based on feedback (and as much data as you can gather). Much like wellness itself, a wellness program is a constant work in progress—and one that benefits from the right fit.

There are two aspects of wellness programming that you should consider offering to all employees, based on recent research: Mental health services and technology-based services.

Provide Mental Health Programming

Remember when we said that programming didn’t necessarily have to remain the same year after year? This is the one exception to that rule. Mental health in the workplace is a very real problem that has to be addressed.

The state of mental health in the workplace reached a crisis level during the pandemic, and it remains a concern. Despite some recent improvement, employee mental health is still worse than before the pandemic:

  • The risk of depression is 71% higher
  • The risk of PTSD is 33% higher
  • Employee sustained attention is 27% worse

This crisis has impacted employees’ productivity, their ability to focus, and even their perspective on attaining work-life balance. Without mental health services, some of your employees will be unable to engage with your wellness programming—they’ll simply be too overwhelmed.

Most of your employees need some level of mental health support—even if they aren’t openly willing to admit it.

Incorporate Both Human and Technology Programming Options

Another programming issue that can lead to workplace wellness failure is not having enough technology available to employees.

One of the best examples we’ve seen where employees lean toward technology is counseling and coaching services. Post-pandemic studies are revealing that people have grown accustomed to technology—so much so that 65% of employees prefer to talk to a robot instead of their manager about stress and anxiety at work and 80% are willing to have a robot as a therapist or counselor.

If your program only offers services provided through human interaction, you’ll lose a good majority of your employee engagement. This is where a digital behavioral health platform for coaching and counseling can be extremely useful.

Reason #5: Employees Aren’t Aware of the Program

Your employees can’t participate in program activities they don’t know about.

And expecting them to remember every aspect of your workplace wellness program after one announcement, email, or digital flier isn’t going to cut it either.

If you don’t have a multipronged approach to communicating your wellness program, you are setting your program up for failure. And have some fun with it! Brand your program, create a tagline and develop some key messages. Let some personality and humor show. Be real. Treat your wellness program marketing efforts like your business depends on it.

A few recommendations that can help refine your communication and marketing include:

  1. Customize communication to each of your unique audiences. This is especially important for diverse, multicultural, multilanguage employee populations.
  2. Leverage every communication channel you can, such as:
    1. Text reminders on mobile devices
    2. Branded online newsletters
    3. Interactive bulletin boards in high traffic areas
    4. Internal messaging tools like Slack and Yammer
    5. Email campaigns
    6. Employees all-hands meetings and individual team meetings
    7. Lunch and learns with your Wellness Champion Network
If your company’s wellness program is showing any of these signs, it doesn’t mean your program is doomed to failure. It simply means you have some work to do to make your program a better fit for your people.

Do You Need a Workplace Wellness Evaluation?

WellRight’s wellness experts work with clients across industries to develop highly customized workplace wellness programs to fit their unique employee populations. If you’re wondering how your wellness program can be improved, contact us. WellRight can help.

Discover more ideas to make your workplace wellness program as effective and engaging as possible.

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