As an employer, I know how important it is to offer a wide variety of benefits to my team, and as a staffing professional, I can see firsthand that companies that value the wellness of their staff are making the most competitive offers and are better able to retain talent.
But, the most common workplace wellness plans I hear about are weight loss challenges, and to be honest, these programs turn my stomach. So before you start a #workplacepoundsoff challenge in the office, hear me out.
Weight loss programs have no business in the workplace.
You might think a weight loss program is a solid idea for employee wellness: Weight is a big contributor to our overall health, right? I used to think the same thing, but in recent years, medical research has found just the opposite. Health and weight aren’t necessarily tied together.
And here’s an even more stark reality: Diets don’t work. The overwhelming majority of people who lose weight gain the weight back — and then some. And, diets and weight loss can be bad for you. They can cause all kinds of long-term health effects that are harmful to your body, including eating disorders, which can be fatal.
Beyond the health concerns, weight loss programs are downright discriminatory. A weight loss program sends a clear message to your bigger employees: Your bodies are bad, and they need to be changed. It encourages co-workers to make judgments about their colleagues’ bodies, eating choices, or health — none of which are their business.
The bottom line: A weight loss challenge only contributes to the stigma that bigger people face without actually providing any health benefits. It’s time to try something else.
But thoughtful workplace health and wellness plans? They work.
Offering wellness plans or challenges at work not only makes you a more competitive place where people actually want to work — it allows you to create a culture of value toward your employees. The good news is that there is a whole world of wellness benefits, plans, and programs you can offer your employees that actually contribute to their overall health and have nothing to do with weight.
These 20 challenges, plans, and benefits look at your employees as whole people with deeply complex lives and needs, and offering any number of these options will show your team how much you value them.
20 workplace wellness program ideas (that have nothing to do with weight loss!)
1. Start a meditation challenge.
The benefits of meditation are pretty striking: better mental health, focus, and overall well-being. Meditation can even help manage common ailments like asthma, chronic pain, depression, high blood pressure, sleep problems, headaches, and much more. Why not get memberships for your team to a meditation app and set a challenge to meditate for five minutes each day? And here’s the key component: Set aside time each day on your employees’ calendars to sit with their headphones in for their mindful time.
2. Make lunchtime mandatory.
How many of us can say we’ve never worked through lunchtime, our sad salads perched next to the keyboard while we bury ourselves in spreadsheets? I’ve certainly been guilty of it. But employees need a break, and they need to eat and nourish themselves. What if you instituted mandatory lunch times, and mandated that upper management model those breaks?
3. Provide breakfast for your team.
On the nourishment note, I’m betting a lot of your team does what I’m sometimes guilty of doing: rushing out the front door without breakfast. But it’s impossible to focus and tough on your body to go without food, so providing balanced breakfasts regularly is money well spent.
4. Bring in massage therapists.
Are your employees on their feet all day or hunched over their desks? Plenty of massage therapists offer group rates and will come to the office to help your team get some well-deserved pampering. Just block off the conference room so recipients can have some privacy.
5. Make sure your office has a dedicated nursing space.
When new mothers return to the office, pumping is a major concern. Pumping has to happen on a regular schedule, otherwise, mothers are susceptible to pain or health problems. Ensuring a private, comfortable space to pump (absolutely not a bathroom or HVAC closet) is a critical way to provide for the health and wellness of new mothers.
6. Offer on-site flu shots.
The flu comes around every year, and while it’s an annoyance for some people, it can be downright dangerous for older, disabled, or chronically ill employees. You can help out your team by bringing vaccines on site, so they won’t have to balance a trip to the doctor with their already stressful schedules.
7. Offer access to smoking cessation programs.
Unlike weight, smoking has long-documented harmful health effects: Cigarette smoking leads to more than 480,000 deaths per year. Smoking cessation programs are a highly effective option to help people beat their habit and are a compassionate way to deal with addiction — as opposed to shaming. The American Lung Association offers programs you can purchase for your employees, among plenty of other options.
8. Make meetings chair-optional and provide standing desks.
You’ve likely heard the news: Sitting for long periods isn’t great for our bodies. You can support employees who want to — and are able to — reduce their sitting time by providing standing desks in the office and giving your team the freedom to stand during meetings.
9. Send out chair yoga exercises to the team.
A yoga class during working hours is a nice idea, but in my experience, people are reluctant to do exercise of any kind with their co-workers, and people sometimes feel anxious about taking an hour out of their day away from their desks. There are countless chair yoga tutorials online for free, and you can send out a daily pose for each person to practice when they sit down to work or return from lunch. By meeting people where they are — sitting at their desks, most likely — you can provide a real service that they can actually use.
10. Provide nourishing snacks.
I know, I know. I’ve been talking about food a lot. But if your employees’ only option for an afternoon snack is sad vending machine food, they’re not able to adequately nourish themselves. Bags of nuts, dried fruit, or yogurts in the fridge will go a long way to helping your employees practice good nutrition and take care of themselves.
11. Offer personal finance education.
A startling 73% of Americans rank money as the number one stressor in their lives — and given the impact stress has on our health, I’d count this as a public health crisis. The reality is that most Americans are not particularly financially literate: We do not teach financial literacy in schools, and our financial systems are arcane, complicated, and inaccessible. Why not bring in a certified financial planner once a quarter to explain topics like credit, retirement, general investing, and more to your team?
12. Educate your team about appropriate workplace food conversations.
Breakroom lunches can be a minefield: Co-workers sometimes comment on the healthfulness of food, and the comments can veer into the judgemental. I knew a man who once brought a kale salad for lunch and found himself bullied by his coworkers for a “too feminine” meal. Judgemental food comments have real impact and can lead to disordered eating patterns. Educating your team about appropriate and considerate ways to talk about food in the workplace sets a culture of compassion that lets people simply eat their lunches without fear of judgment.
13. Offer health screenings.
People put off going to the doctor for tons of reasons, including time concerns and fear. But a quick and simple health screening can save a life and can happen outside of a doctor’s office. As an employer, you can engage health clinics to come to your workplace and administer simple tests of things like blood pressure, blood glucose levels, or cholesterol.
14. Give employees ample sick time — including mental health days.
Without offering ample, paid sick time, you’re setting yourself up for failure as an employer, because your employees will be forced to come to work sick. Two sneezes-in-close-proximity later, you’ve got an entire office with the flu. In my experience, employees are very unlikely to take advantage of sick days, and giving people the time to heal shows respect and care. Make sure that mental health qualifies as a reason to take a sick day so that your employees can take care of all aspects of their health.
15. Start a cookbook club.
Cooking is a wonderful way to develop healthy eating habits and create a loving and joyful relationship with food, which is critical to health. As a team, try picking one cookbook and cooking one recipe per month for dinner. Try a meeting that day to go through the recipe, and let more experienced cooks on the team answer questions from the novices. Don’t forget to snap pictures to share the next day!
16. Offer mental health resources — including flexibility.
You can offer your employees an unexpected mental health benefit: flexibility. The ability to take a long lunch to go to therapy could be the difference between a content team member and one in crisis, and I’ve never seen someone abuse this privilege. Therapy shouldn’t be something employees have to squeeze in — give them a little leeway to take care of themselves.
17. Offer support for substance abuse.
This one is similar to the previous idea but centers around substance abuse support. What’s especially important here is confidentiality — you never want to put your employees in a position of having to ask for time off and disclose that they’re in AA or another program based on anonymity. Instead, why not a blanket program offering one long lunch per week to attend to anything health-related, including substance abuse support?
18. Create walking or rolling clubs.
When you’re stuck inside an office, you can easily spend an entire day without breathing fresh air or feeling the sun on your face. Consider slotting aside an hour every week for a walking or rolling club. The goal isn’t to power walk — it’s to be outside, so elect a leader to set a leisurely pace.
19. Offer “morning shifts” and “evening shifts.”
If you’re open to a more flexible work arrangement, consider adding shifts that let employees work according to their bodies’ natural clocks. Morning people who are up with the sun can come in at 7:00 a.m and leave at 3:00 p.m., while night owls can get a slower start and work from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Simply schedule company meetings during the shared middle of the day.
20. Offer the best health insurance your company can possibly afford.
This one might be the most important of all. 100 million Americans have medical debt, and countless more don’t go to the doctor or work through pain because they fear the bill. When you’re setting your company’s budget, focus as much as possible on getting comprehensive health care for your employees. Not only will it make you a more competitive workplace for applicants, it could be a matter of life or death.
All of these ideas address the many facets of health from a holistic standpoint, and they’re aimed at actual health concerns — unlike weight. With even just a few of these tactics, you’ll be on your way to a healthier workplace full of happier employees who feel valued, protected, and safe.