Workplace Culture

Sector Report: Is Wellness Just an Employee Perk?

By Sarah Fister Gale

Mar. 26, 2018

Corporate-sponsored wellness programs continue to be popular, but not for the typical reasons.

While sponsoring health club memberships and Fitbit leaderboards is a great way to get employees focused on healthy living, the real benefit of these programs is cultural cachet. “These offerings are moving to closer to being a perk than being about wellness,” said Michael Maniccia, specialist leader for Deloitte in Los Angeles.

According to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans’ “Workplace Wellness 2017 Survey Report,” while 75 percent of employers now offer wellness initiatives, only 1 in 4 said the main reason was to control or reduce health-related costs. Instead, they are looking at these programs as a way to drive engagement and improve employee satisfaction. Companies also use these programs to lure top talent, offering increasingly over-the-top offerings — think climbing walls and laser tag — to brand their corporate culture as a cool place to work.

Workforce 2018 Hot List for wellness providers

It makes sense, said Maniccia. “These programs are fun, they aren’t expensive, and they increase employee engagement, all of which is good for a company.” Whether they actually improve the health of the employee population — or reduce medical costs — is less clear.

Even when the goal of a specific wellness program is related to improving health, measuring the impact is difficult. Even if health care costs drop, it’s impossible to isolate wellness as the reason, Maniccia said. Instead, companies should consider more short-term measures, such as program participation and employee satisfaction. “If no one uses the wellness program, it isn’t contributing value,” he said.

Beyond the Physical

Fortunately, today’s wellness programs have something for everyone. Along with traditional weight loss and smoking cessation programs, wellness now extends to healthy living, social and emotional health, healthy sleep habits and financial guidance. “It’s about focusing on the well-being of the entire employee,” said Ann Wyatt, vice president of program management for HealthFitness, a health management company based in Minnesota.

It’s good for business. Research shows that poor sleep, emotional stress and financial troubles have a direct impact on employee performance and absenteeism, Wyatt said. For example, PWC’s 2017 “Employee Financial Wellness Survey” shows nearly one-third of all employees are distracted by personal financial issues while at work, with almost half spending three hours or more each week handling personal finances at work. Such findings have driven the popularity of financial coaching, consulting and other programs, she said. “It is the new cornerstone of the wellness offering.”

Maniccia believes the next big thing in wellness will be volunteer options. “A person’s well-being is linked to whether they are fulfilled by what they do every day,” he noted. When their job doesn’t provide this intrinsic satisfaction, having opportunities to give back to the community can help fill that gap. It is also another way for companies to brand their corporate culture as a company that gives back. “There is a natural connection between wellness and volunteerism,” he said. This is still a new idea in wellness, but he anticipates stronger links will emerge between benefits administration and corporate social responsibility programs in the future.

Regardless of what types of programs a company offers, the key is making sure employees are aware of them, see value in them and are encouraged to take advantage. “Employees often feel like they need permission to use wellness offerings,” Wyatt said. If taking an hour off for a yoga class or financial seminar is frowned upon, people won’t use them. To get the most value, leaders need to promote the programs through communication campaigns, participate themselves and celebrate success stories as a way to drive engagement, she said.

Companies also need to think beyond what young active employees want from wellness. While CrossFit classes and paleo lunch menus may appeal to health-focused millennials, companies need to think about the needs of all employees and provide enough variety to motivate those who aren’t inherently fit. “Health is personal,” Wyatt said. “You have to have a program that speaks to everyone or it is not going to work.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in the Chicago area. Comment below or email


Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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