How to Engage Your Employees in a Wellness Program

Why  are so many of your employees leading a less-than-healthy lifestyle? There are many possible reasons:

  • The healthy choice is generally not the easy choice 
  • The influence of peers and family members is often not a positive one
  • People have bad habits stemming from unaddressed behavioral health issues
  • Our society makes the unhealthy choice cheap and convenient
  • A lot more money goes into marketing junk food than fruits and vegetables
  • People simply don't realize that their health destiny is in their hands.

If that's the majority of your workforce, then what can an employer do?

The Nanny State Strategy

You can force your employees to eat healthy, get enough exercise, go to bed at a reasonable time, and meditate.

Well, not exactly - HR probably would have something to say about that.

But you can incentivize these behaviors by tying them to financial penalties for non-compliance. A lot of Wellness Programs are nothing more than carrots and sticks, with a lot more sticks than carrots. A friend of mine who works for a large hospital system told me about the money he'll lose if he doesn't get in his 150,000 steps per day. (And having to wear a FitBit to track those steps feels like a law-enforcement ankle bracelet.) 

That strategy is a recipe for resistance, disengagement, and plummeting productivity. Nobody wants to be told what to do - especially in an area as sensitive as their lifestyle habits.

The Laissez-Faire Strategy

The opposite approach is to make Wellness programs available to employees, and not really worry about whether they're taking advantage of them. 

After all, Wellness is not exactly a high priority in this economy. You've got to focus your employees on strategic initiatives: increasing market share, pivoting to take advantage of changing situations, dealing with nimble competitors out to eat your lunch. 

Sure, it's fine for them to spend the occasional Lunch and Learn hearing about healthy eating, or exercise, or stress management, but there's no way that stuff is going to start clogging up their brains during working hours.

The WellStart Approach

At WellStart, we take a different approach.

We believe that most people want to be well. They don't want to suffer from a preventable or reversible chronic disease. They don't want to die prematurely, or develop a disability that will force them to become dependent on loved ones for their basic needs. They don't want their excess weight to keep them from enjoying life.


The first thing we do is tap into people's already existing motivation. We ask them to define their own big health goals. Most of the time, those goals are far more timid and small than they might be.


Then it becomes a matter of education - showing them evidence and anecdotes that prove how much diet and lifestyle improvements can accomplish. And that they can do it themselves. 

Strategy and Tactics

Once people see that it's possible for them to achieve their own big goals, we move into strategy and tactics. These include:

  • making the healthy choice the easy choice, by simplifying meals, eliminating the need to count or track calories or carbs, establishing empowering standards
  • building a social support system, so that these new healthy choices start feeling "normal"
  • how to shop for, cook, and prepare healthy meals and snacks
  • how to create an exercise regimen that fits their lifestyle and gets done regularly
  • how to use simple breathing exercises to defeat stress


Then we assist them in building skills. Lifestyle change isn't simply a matter of character. It's just like learning a sport, or an instrument. You start out sucky, and get better and better with practice. 

You don't pick up a guitar, fail to play Stairway to Heaven (thank goodness!), and decide that you just don't have the self-discipline or motivation or willpower to be a good guitarist. But that's just how we think about our health behaviors: once you decide to avoid sweets, you should be able to do so from that moment on.

Follow Through

Then comes the most important step of all - helping people follow through consistently with their plans and intentions. In the face of resistance and cravings. In spite of the voice in their head that tells them to eat the cookie, hit the snooze button one more time, and stay up until 2am watching reruns of M*A*S*H

Oh, and by the way, when your employees develop their follow through muscle, and consistently act in accordance with their goals, priorities, and values - that habit transfers big time to other areas of their lives. Can you imagine a workforce consisting of accountable, responsible, proactive team members? 


There's one final step that cements all these positive changes: turning them from habits into an identity. Once you become "the kind of person who cares about their health," eating right and doing all the other healthy habits becomes second nature. And then you become a role model for others who want to "have what you're having" (to paraphrase that delightful line from When Harry Met Sally).

Change is Natural

If you've ever been involved in an organizational change initiative, you may have come away from the experience thinking that large-scale change is nearly impossible. The resistance. The passive aggressive responses. The entrenched habits.

But human beings change all the time, in order to get the outcomes that we want. It's natural. It's normal. All we have to do is harness employees' existing motivation, and show them how they can get those outcomes. It's their energy, not ours, that fuels their journey. 

Natural consequences, like lower premiums and a share of healthcare savings and celebrations for progress, can replace artificial carrots and sticks.

And when your employees see that you grant them autonomy, and care about their wellbeing, you'll get an ROI of engagement and loyalty that far exceeds the spreadsheet savings on healthcare claims and the costs of absenteeism.

We'd love to chat about how you can implement a compassionate and effective wellness culture in your organization. Hit us up via the form below, and we'll be in touch. 

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Howard Jacobson