Employee Perk or Productivity Secret? Corporate Wellness Programs Deliver on Both

UPDATED: August 29, 2023
PUBLISHED: August 29, 2023
happy woman does yoga pose in her living room as part of a corporate wellness program

In decades gone by, the only perk you might have received from your boss was a fruit basket around the holidays. Now, corporate wellness programs are tipping employees’ decisions as they consider two companies to work for, and might be contributing to retention as well. They are in abundance as developers jump on the corporate wellness train: there are mental health apps with therapists in your pocket. There are gym memberships and bonuses for working out. There are on-site clinics making preventative wellness accessible. And so much more.

This leaves employers with a decision to make: Are corporate wellness programs worth the investment? Will they pay off for employees, and the business, in the long run? Employers also have to contend with the “how” they will make it happen, from voucher systems that give employees more choice over their program selections, to determining through company research which options are being used the most.

A 2023 report from Gitnux reveals that more than half of U.S. businesses currently offer these programs. They are paying off, too, with a 66% productivity increase overall, 67% increase in employee satisfaction, 63% improvement in financial growth and stability and 50% less absenteeism of employees. They also might be a key factor, the report shows, in retaining female employees, the demographic more likely to leave the workplace with caregiving obligations. The report also shows that mental health disorders cost $1 trillion in lost productivity every year, pointing to the necessity of mental health and wellness programs in making a dent in these losses.

When did corporate wellness programs begin to take hold?

Even before the pandemic, companies were looking to these initiatives to attract employees. In fact, in 2016 the Harvard Business Review compiled data from leading experts on the topic. It concluded that programs are most likely to fail if they aren’t integrated properly into a “comprehensive workplace health promotion strategy.” They call out “solitary initiatives” as programs that only administer health risk assessments, pay people to change habits, simply send people to the company’s health plan website, introduce short campaigns (think “Biggest Loser”) and hire a vendor to “fix” unhealthy employees. 

So what does work? Here’s what experts and company leaders are thinking about, and want others to consider, as they invest in corporate wellness programs.

All eyes are on workplace stress, as burnout numbers have peaked in recent years compared to the past. Employers and wellness experts are scrambling to improve such a widespread phenomenon. Virtual classes have been on the rise for everything from financial education to yoga, and rightfully so, according to Rachel Fleischman Wood, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist, the founder of Bliss Counseling and the founder of a therapeutic dance workshop.

“Companies should not overlook the benefits of virtual classes (think meditation, dance, yoga) as well as cutting-edge guided apps,” she says. 

In addition, with mental health conditions rising during and after the pandemic, Fleischman says these should always be included. “More people are signing up for psychotherapy than ever before and the de-stigmatization of getting regular therapy, or practicing wellness, is essential for so many in the workforce. Stress, anxiety, depression and burnout are real and without a robust mental health and wellness program—I use the terms interchangeably—people will be far less productive and go on disability more often.”

Employees benefit, and so does the company’s bottom line

In addition to improving the lives of employees, popular corporate wellness programs usually have some financial return for the company itself. Mo Katibeh, a Belmont, California-based COO and president of RingCentral, calls this a “win-win.”

“Our employee population and past engagement helps drive our negotiations for rates. We also constantly evaluate our programs to reduce any redundancies among similar programs,” he says. “For example, we now offer online bootcamp-style workouts and yoga to all employees. Prior, these classes were offered in specific locations and could only accommodate a small group of employees. This has helped us broaden the offering to reach more of our people while also achieving greater cost efficiency.”

Preventative measures, such as encouraging employees to exercise and providing free screenings for blood pressure and other health measurements, along with vaccination clinics, can prevent sick employees in the future. This leads to fewer missed days, lower insurance premiums and more profit. “The more people feel seen and supported by their work wellness programs, the better! And that includes offering flu shots, pregnancy tests and more,” Fleischman says.

Choosing what works for your employees

One of the immediate and overwhelming barriers when an employer decides to invest in a corporate wellness program is the impossibility of meeting everyone’s vastly different needs. The answer tends to lie in a totally anonymous survey, both at the start of programming and periodically throughout. 

Katibeh considers these factors: “Where we have employees globally; what their work arrangements are (in-office, hybrid, remote); and what their needs are. We work closely with our broker to benchmark programs based on their own book of business and industry surveys, so what are common needs or offerings other companies provide, and will that work for our population?” 

Consider sending out surveys

Then, they send out surveys periodically for employee feedback. “We’ll meet with our vendors and review program engagement and utilization,” Katibeh says, adding that his company leans towards wellness programs that focus on work-life balance. “Between work and their personal lives, our employees are busy. Providing programs to support different needs can give our employees peace of mind, support or even advice. We also see correlations in our health claims. For example, an employee using our free employee support program or meditation app is finding they can sleep better at night, which in turn results in greater overall health and reduced medical claims,” he says. They use TaskHuman, which is free for employees. Some of the offerings include:

  • Boot camps, yoga and other fitness initiatives
  • Home and family coaching
  • Mental and emotional support
  • Professional development
  • Other specialized programs—the recent favorites were about Father’s Day and managing anxiety, Katibeh adds

Employees also have free access to the meditation app Headspace, a free legal benefit through Rocket Lawyer, and virtual and on-site programming events.

Katibeh says managing the needs of several thousand employees globally involves assessing what those needs—which can span financial, physical, mental and social well-being, along with personal and professional growth and development—might be before making these decisions. And it’s working—RingCentral has a rating of 4.92/5 average satisfaction rating, and has 84% of employees optimizing the group coaching program.

Letting employees choose for themselves

Some companies have opted to stop trying to determine what employees need. Instead, they’re letting employees choose for themselves. This happens in the form of vouchers, where employees are able to use credits, money or other systems to apply toward included or approved programs and initiatives. The pros include giving a diverse set of employees more voice and choice, but there can also be challenges.

“Vouchers are great, but companies need to be careful, and they should be generous. People tend to feel demoralized by a voucher for just two EAP therapy sessions,” Fleischman says. “With virtual wellness being more affordable, allow employees to choose from a few top-notch apps for monthly therapy and coaching sessions, as well as workouts and meditations. Companies need to put their money where their mouth is and give generously.”

Still, vouchers often solve the problem of widely varying needs. “The needs are not the same and that is what we are solving for. In a diverse workforce, we have people at different stages in life, with different needs and priorities outside of work,” says Shalini Hathurusinghe, senior people operations specialist at Grow Therapy

“Are they a caretaker? Are they having difficult life moments? Are they battling chronic illnesses or differently abled? Are they about to be parents? How emotionally demanding is their role?”

Whether employers opt for vouchers or not, surveys and open, genuine feedback remain a must-have. “We encourage our employees to be honest about their experience, good or bad. The goal isn’t to be perfect but to continuously improve,” Hathurusinghe says.

Programming isn’t a ‘band-aid’ for toxic workplace culture

If issues run much deeper in the company, creating a toxic or emotionally unsafe workplace, programming isn’t going to be a quick fix.

“These days, people do their research before committing to a company, and offering yoga and gym memberships and $100 credits for going to the doctor each year is not the priority when saying yes to a job, but it is something employees look for,” says Arissan Nicole, a resume and career coach and workplace empowerment expert. “It can show that you care about your employees outside of the nine-to-five. On the flip side, if you have a broken culture, the incentives can feel like using a band-aid to treat a bullet hole. Employees present and future will see right through it. Corporate wellness programs need to complement the bigger story you are using to recruit, not be the feature.”