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6 Tips for Small Employers Thinking about Workplace Wellness

When you think of wellness programs, what comes to mind? Some small employers might think that wellness initiatives are best suited for a large employer environment.  Still others might believe that workplace wellness programs are too expensive. Perhaps both small employers and their employees are concerned that such efforts could be overly personal, or even invasive.

So, what’s a small employer to do about workplace wellness?  Here are a few starter ideas:

  1. To the extent possible, use information which you know about your employees to tailor programs, rather than defaulting to off-the-shelf products.   Though it’s not universally true, small employers are often able to develop more personal relationships with—and therefore may know (or more easily learn)—about their individual employees than large employers.  Use this information to identify and/or create programs that are particularly relevant.
  2. Make it fun!  There has been a trend toward gamification of wellness activities over the past several years. Gamification aims to make activities reward-based, social, and encouraging. One example of a service using these techniques is Hubbub, which uses a web-based platform to help employees track exercise and healthy eating in a team-based atmosphere.
  3. Involve friends and family. Most health care happens at home—not in the doctor’s office, and probably not at work.  To truly impact individual employees’ wellness, behaviors which occur within an employee’s usual ecosystem (at home, in their neighborhood, within their family environment) must be a focus.  Making lasting, cost-saving change should logically involve the employee’s family and friends.  Some services, like Hubbub, offer opportunities to integrate employees’ social support systems at low/no cost.
  4. Re-think “pay-off”.  Behavior change (the basis of wellness programs) takes time.  Therefore, realizing a significant wellness ROI takes time.  With consistent commitment to wellness activities, the Altarum Institute estimates that, over time, medical costs fall by about $3.27 per person, and absenteeism costs drop by around $2.37.  Importantly, wellness initiatives improve employee morale as well as productivity. 
  5. Don’t be too quick to assume how to address a specific type of health issue.  Often, off-the-shelf products are designed for large work forces which might have a fair number of people who fall into their target audience.  Regardless of whether many others choose to opt out, those large employers are likely to be able to recruit an ample number of participants for, say, an after-work exercise program. The same might not be true for a business with 20 employees!  In fact, smaller employers might best improve employee health by looking to the work environment rather than employee behaviors.  According to Stanford organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, toxic work environments cause 125,000 employee deaths, and add $130 billion in excess health care costs, each year.  Assess whether your work environment is toxic.  If it is, work to change it.
  6. Understand how the ACA impacts wellness initiatives.  The ACA proposed rule regarding wellness includes several consumer protections, and increases the maximum allowable reward which employers can offer to employees for participating in certain wellness programs.  For example, employers can now offer rewards of up to 50% of the cost of health coverage for participation in programs designed to prevent or reduce tobacco use.  Read more about the details here

Interested in reading more about wellness programs at small businesses?  Here are a couple of additional articles:

From Employee Benefit News

From Marketwatch

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This post was contributed by Shannon Saksewski (Health Education Program Manager, Detroit Regional Chamber).  Shannon can be contacted at