How do you keep an employee happy?

While the right path to achieving work-life balance has never been an easily answered question, a new trend has begun to emerge in the types of perks employees are looking for: an increased focus on health and wellness that pushes past health benefits and a fraternal corporate culture to extend into the world of wellness.

Workplace wellness programs in practice have gotten a fairly negative rap in the last few years. A 2014 New York Times article entitled “Do Workplace Wellness Programs Work? Usually Not” points out that programs that encourage employees to make healthier choices disproportionately focus on smokers and those with high cholesterol, often through financial incentives such as reduced health insurance costs, or penalties, like smoking surcharges. These programs, which are often bundled as part of an employee health package, very rarely save employers money, or keep employees much healthier, given that the multiple extra screenings simply encourage overuse of unnecessary medical services and largely push extraneous costs onto employees.

The other major problem with traditional wellness programs is their accompanying culture of  shame. Employees who don’t pass (often arbitrary) health markers, such as cholesterol levels and moderate blood pressure, can have surcharges tacked onto their insurance costs, sometimes as high as $600 more per year. Gamified competitions, such as weight-loss challenges, are also common facets of workplace wellness programs; they tout health and team-building, yet unfairly spotlight and humiliate co-workers who may struggle with keeping weight off. As the Huffington Post summed up, “If a colleague makes repeated references to your weight and threatens to take away your lunch money if you don’t lose weight, that’s bullying. But if your employer does exactly the same thing, that’s corporate wellness.”

Programs need to apply behavior change theory to engage people in the task of taking better care of their health. They need to convince them that a healthy lifestyle is not just about earning a financial reward – but rather a path to feeling better, experiencing a better quality of life, having more energy, and generally improving their well-being,” writes Ron Goetzel, director of the Emory Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, in the medical policy journal, Health Affairs. “To achieve those goals, a successful worksite wellness program needs to create a culture and environment that supports health and wellness – where the default condition encourages good health.”

But is figuring out the right mix of rooftop yoga classes, organic grain bowl bars, and unobtrusive blood pressure monitoring for mixed returns worth the effort? Stress annually accounts for over $300 billion in healthcare costs and lost productivity. With the meditation industry skyrocketing to over $15 billion, yoga to $27 billion, and stress and anxiety taking in $22 billion all in 2015, it’s apparent that while wellness is increasingly important to Americans, the disconnect between what they want and what wellness programs are offering is vast.

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More companies are adopting the whole-employee approach to integrate wellness into their employees lives - and they’re not alone. Over 50% of companies with more than 50 employees use some sort of workplace wellness program, and the industry is attracting thought leaders. Most recently, former Huffington Post editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington launched her own workplace-wellness consultancy firm, Thrive. The goal? To bring holistic healthcare to the workplace by teaching companies how to “treat the whole human being.”

GoPro is one of those companies on the cutting edge of integrating both work and wellness into their employees lives, instead of having employees arrange their lives around their work. As the Los Angeles Times reported last month, the company focuses on meeting what they believe are their employees four core needs: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Adapted from a Harvard Business Review study, the basic idea goes that if an employee’s emotional (positive atmosphere), mental (ability to accomplish work), physical (exercise, rest, meals), and spiritual (impactful work) were met, those employees would be more satisfied and productive overall.

In GoPro’s case, perks such as in-office yoga, readily-available surfboards, weekly recesses, and a concerted campaign from management to use company time to pursue passions, was critical to establishing a wellness focused mindset. Finding what works for your company -- and implementing it in a way that’s scalable and affordable -- is an easy solution to maximize office health, productivity, and corporate culture all at once.

Nourish the Whole Employee

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Being able to offer healthy nutrition options is a simple way to keep employees quite literally energized. Squarespace incorporated healthy grains like quinoa and bulgur into their lunches, which are provided to employees four times a week. Google and Facebook house multiple cafeterias with a diverse array of foods for every diet. Even at J.P. Morgan in Manhattan, demand for egg whites has usurped eggs at the omelet bar.

Healthy snacks are always a popular choice; keeping a range of options for all diets will earn you boatloads of goodwill. Individual Greek yogurt containers are in high demand at blogging behemoth Tumblr, while companies like San Francisco’s Purple Plant Blends put a new spin on the midday coffee cart by towing in mobile smoothie bars to workplaces all over the city.

The most impactful initiative on the workplace lunch, however, is also the cheapest: bring back a lunch culture. In 2015, NPR reported that only 1 in 5 Americans now leaves their desk for lunch - inaction that impacts health and has been proven to diminish creativity and innovation.

“You need to get the top managers to be part of this community of taking time off in the middle of the day to eat lunch, to go for a walk, to have a coffee break. They need to be included in the community and model that behavior for the rest of the workforce,” says Kimberly Elsbach, a professor studying workplace psychology at UC Davis’ School of Management. “By encouraging employees to take their lunch breaks, and doing so in a way that leads by example, managers can create a lunch culture that helps workers focus on prioritizing a work-life balance.”

Keep Active

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Fitness benefits have long been one of the most popular perks offered in workplace health packages - long before workplace wellness became buzzwords, even. By offering employees subsidized or low-cost access to fitness programs, companies can organically boost workplace health and reinforce their commitment to honoring work-life balance at the same time. Classes can also go a long way, especially if a gym subsidy isn’t in the cards, be it weekly morning yoga, a lunchtime Zumba class, or end-of-day stretch seminars to counteract eight hours of sitting.

Getting creative with fitness is also a great way to get your company involved with your community. If subsidizing memberships proves to be costly, do you provide a product that can be offered to local business owners in exchange for classes? Fitness, volunteerism, and teamwork also go hand-in-hand, and there’s never a shortage of charity walks for good causes that can be done as a team.

Gamify Work Day Wellness

Another way to work fitness into your wellness program is by integrating it directly into the work day. Rather than relying on antiquated wellness programs that operate on a strict regiment of quotas and penalties, making fitness a gamified team challenge draws the whole office into a wellness program, rather than singling out individuals and penalizing them with increased healthcare costs.

Fitness trackers like Fitbit and Garmin are an excellent way to host a variety of fitness competitions such as step challenges, stair tracking, and  active exercise minute logging. As a Cornerstone survey recently reported, 80% of employees said they’d be willing to wear a company-provided wearable that lets them track health and wellness, even if it provides their employer with that data. By using trackers to incentivize teams to stay active, employees have a regular reminder on their wrist to stay active, and a built in support system to help them do so.

Make People Comfortable

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The average office worker will spend 30% of their life in the office, so why not make them comfortable while they’re there?

Stand-up meetings, or stand-ups, are one way to getting the blood circulating during the work day. The meetings have a host of non-health benefits as well. As the Washington Post reported, a 2015 study found that employees who stood-up during meetings “appeared more excited by their work, acted less territorial about their ideas, and interacted better as a team.” Stand-ups are most often used as a quick check-in for teams and help keep huddles moving quickly - a welcome antidote to the pervasive theory that office culture has way too many meetings.

While still seen as a Utopian work dream for most, sleeping pods -- and hammocks and nap rooms-- are quickly gaining in popularity. Companies like Google and Buzzfeed are eschewing cubicles for open floor plans and a bevy of napping pods to let harried workers hit the refresh button. Rest areas aside, counteracting the harmful effects of sitting is arguably one of the best places to improve employee productivity and wellness. With potential impact on blood pressure, circulation, muscle degeneration, organ problems, and an increased risk of colon cancer, getting up out of chairs is critical for a healthy work force. Providing back-friendly options like StandDesk’s automatic-rise desk gives employees the ability to stretch their legs and work standing up at the touch of a button, while also having the freedom to stay seated anytime they want.

Breakout areas with alternative seating are another cost-effective way to get people up from their desk chairs; exercise balls that can be used as chairs, lounge areas with a variety of seating that would rival even the kitschiest coffee shop, and outdoor spaces for room to spread out and work all offer a plethora of options to counteract the effects of sitting in the same office chair day in and day out.

Lead By Example

One of the biggest weaknesses of unsucessful workplace wellness programs is looking at health issues individually, instead of examining the total impact a work environment can have on employee wellness. Open vacation policies, flexible schedules, and the ability to work from home all have considerable impact on employee happiness. With Gallup reporting that only 32% of Americans feel engaged in their job, stepping back to see the big picture of how to improve workplace attitudes can have a tangible impact on office health.

Forbes cited the ability to work from home from time to time as one of the biggest perks that attracts the best talent to companies, and it’s true - flexible schedules are among the most requested job benefits, especially for millennial workers. Whether that means an open-ended vacation policy, or letting employees work from home, letting employees manage their own schedule is often the easiest way to increase employee engagement.

Yet merely letting employees know they have a flexible schedule isn’t going to cut it. Much like the need for managers and company leadership to create a lunch culture that fosters taking breaks when needed, upper management has to lead by example, so that employees who might feel remiss in asking for time off know that it’s allowed and encouraged within the organization.

Most recently, a pair of researchers analyzed two sets of employees at a tech company. One set was in their control group and followed the company’s current vacation policy: flexible, but with manager approval. The other group was given complete flexibility: they could work anywhere they wanted, and at any time, as long as results were met on time. Critically, however, the second group had a set of managers who conscientiously and continually reinforced the flexible policy.

“Managers were trained to be supportive of their employees’ personal issues and were formally encouraged to open up about their own priorities outside work — an ill parent, or a child wanting her mom to watch her soccer games. Managers were given iPods that buzzed twice a day to remind them to think about the various ways they could support their employees as they managed their jobs and home lives,” writes Susan Dominus in her New York Times article “Rethinking the Work-Life Equation.”

As expected, the second group reported significantly favorable results in productivity and managerial relationships - so much so that employees in the latter group reported less desire to leave the company than their control group counterparts, when surveyed at both the one and three year marks following the study. Having managers who were open and communicative was an integral part of employees being supported, but as researchers found, managers who led by example by making sure they also demonstrably took breaks, planned vacations, and worked from home were the game changer. Merely offering incentives isn’t enough if employees don’t feel safe using them. But when managers started availing themselves of flexible work policies, employees under them reported significantly less guilt in following suit.

Having managers who not only empathize, but routinely make sure they’re committed to reinforcing a work-life balance is critical to fostering an environment focused on productivity, rather than reactivity, and creates an environment where employees feel emboldened to pursue their passions. Even if flexible scheduling or telecommuting may not be in the cards, having daily reminders for managers to communicate with their team members can do wonders for creating a corporate culture. It spurs engagement as well as company loyalty, and underscores the bottom line that overall employee wellness is important to companies, and not just ones that meet a financial bottom line.

Whether you’re working on a Google budget or implementing grassroots wellness benefits, being able to show employees that you care and are invested in their wellness isn’t difficult to implement. When used properly, wellness programs can have stunning results, like the percentage of Johnson & Johnson employees who smoke declining by more than two-thirds in the last two decades. Yet focusing on the holistic health of employees is a far stronger goal: not only does it boost office health, productivity, and revenues, it makes for an invested and engaged workforce - the one benefit of caring for your employees that matters the most, and is the most unquantifiable of all.

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About the author:

Is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas.