Q: We run a small company of 20 with a multi-generational workforce. We have been talking about establishing some kind of wellness program but are concerned we are too small. Are small firms doing this?

A: You do not have to be a multi-billion-dollar corporation to establish a wellness program for your employees. The founders of Winning Workplaces, the Lehman family, were co-owners of Fel-Pro, a midsize, 80-year auto gasket company in Illinois. Fel-Pro was running wellness programs a long time before the term “wellness” became popular. They had an on-site fitness center and a full-time nurse that conducted health assessment screenings. Employees could earn credits to purchase extra vacation days, reduce health insurance premium cost, or extend health benefit coverage. Over time the company, through a study conducted by the University of Chicago, was able to show that their wellness activities helped to reduce their health care costs up to 40 percent.

So you do not have to be a large firm to run these programs. In fact, small businesses probably have the upper hand on big businesses when it comes to wellness. Small firms are much more flexible, able to change due to their size and more often than not they know their employees and have firsthand knowledge on what motivates them.

Today, savvy business leaders know that emphasizing good mental and physical health at home and work makes good business sense for a number of reasons:

  • Emphasis on prevention, health and wellness is a useful tool to attract and retain top talent.
  • When employees believe their employer cares about them beyond their job performance, they tend to be more productive and engaged in their work.
  • There are real costs to having an unhealthy workforce and growing evidence that demonstrates that when firms take a proactive approach to employees’ health they realize a decrease in workplace stress, absenteeism, sick days and a reduction in insurance premiums.

In case you are not quite convinced that the size of the firm matters, here’s one more thing to consider. Each year Winning Workplaces honors, in conjunction with The Wall Street Journal, a few of the Top Small Workplaces across the country. This year out of the 406 firms that completed our extensive application, 15 were selected. Out of those, 11 offer some kind of structured wellness program. The firms vary in the type of wellness activities provided and how they are structured, managed and incentivized. The majority offer some combination of: physical fitness activity, discounts at local gyms, health assessment screenings on site and nutrition awareness. Two great examples of such firms follow:

The Lundberg Family Farms is a third-generation family rice-farming business in California. Their company mission statement stresses the importance of promoting healthy lifestyles for their employees. They have an on-site wellness committee that works in collaboration with the state’s occupational health department in organizing an array of physical activities, including an exercise program where employees begin each day with a stretching and strengthening routine. The firm provides on-site vending machines filled with nutritious items and distributes free fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. In addition they offer discounted memberships to area fitness centers and organize on-site health screenings, blood pressure checks and flu shots to all employees free of charge.

New Belgium Brewing, a growing brewery based in Colorado, believes that emphasizing health awareness is good for employees and can have a positive societal impact. Co-workers at New BelgiumBrewing are encouraged to commute by bike to work and receive a custom cruiser bicycle at the end of their first year of employment. New Belgium also has a large number of co-workers that participate in the company’s Team Wonderbike, where members pledge to leave their car at home and commute by bike whenever possible.

In addition, they wholeheartedly endorse fitting “folly” into the day via on-site yoga, a volleyball court, a climbing wall, an indoor slide, a foosball table and a ping-pong table. New Belgium Brewing also offers discount programs for health clubs and sports “scholarships” for people participating in team and individual sports.

So what are you waiting for? Jump in and set up a wellness program at your company.  But before you do, to ensure successful implementation consider the following tips:

  1. Make sure top management buys into the effort: their commitment and role-modeling are key to its success.
  2. Understand that while there are front-end costs, over time there will be savings.
  3. Survey employees to better understand the current level of wellness.
  4. Focus on results – collect data/evaluate/adjust.
  5. Promote, promote, promote and celebrate accomplishments.
  6. Keep it simple; don’t overly structure.
  7. Always make the programs voluntary and not mandated.
  8. Work to create a culture change, not just a program. Build wellness into your company’s culture by, for example, suggesting readings and then running discussion groups, doing an employee newsletter, recognizing efforts at meetings or company events, motivating with incentives or allowing workers to run the wellness programs as much as possible.

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