The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Wellness Programs in Small Businesses

Ever since the word got out that wellness programs could pay for themselves in the form of lower absenteeism, employee retention, and increased productivity, nearly every large business has instituted some sort of incentive or benefit to help keep their team fit and healthy.

This is all well and good for the Microsofts and Nikes of the world: companies large enough to commit resources to this kind of investment. But since this is small business week, we wanted to look at wellness programs from the perspective of small businesses. Here are the pros, the cons, and the cautions for instituting a wellness program in your shop.

The Good

Major corporations aren’t in the habit of committing resources to programs that don’t pay off. Here are some of the factors that have turned this kind of benefit into a trend:

Improved Productivity

Whether you’re talking about increased energy from a lunchtime workout, or better nutrition improving focus, wellness programs can improve worker productivity by 20 percent to 300 percent, depending on which study you pick.

Reduced Health-Related Costs

Even conservative estimates put the savings for businesses on health-related costs like increased insurance bills, worker’s comp premiums, and new or temp staff training at 9 percent (Harvard Business Review). It makes sense: healthier employees need less spending on their health problems.

Lower Absenteeism

The Harvard Business Review reported that within six years of implementing a comprehensive wellness program, a health care organization saw an 80 percent reduction in sick days and a 64 percent reduction in “modified duty” days where an employee came to work but wasn’t able to fully do his or her job.

The Bad

The pros of wellness programs are compelling, but there are legitimate reasons small businesses don’t always implement them. Although these issues also impact large companies, the big boys aren’t as affected by them because they have more resources to apply.

Financial Costs

Wellness programs save money in the long run, but cost up-front investment capital that typically takes 3-5 years to recoup. A few examples include sign-up fees, payroll costs for staff to organize the program, equipment, and training expenses. Not every small business can put that much up front and then wait years to see the payoff.

Administrative Costs

From tracking participation to adding new hires and removing people who leave the company, maintaining a wellness program will require a few hours of effort from somebody on your staff each month. That’s time taken away from something else, or overtime that comes out of your budget.


People can be weird about fitness and health, in large part because our culture is super-judgmental about it. One way this weirdness manifests is in employees refusing to participate in a wellness program. Overcoming this resistance is hard enough in a large company where orders can come from an HR executive in another state. When you’re dealing with a small team of people you work with closely every day, it can be intimidating and awkward to the point of impossibility.

The Ugly

Two realities of wellness programs are especially thorny, and carry disproportionate risks for small business owners. Don’t let them catch you by surprise. These aren’t reasons to not implement a wellness program, but are factors to consider and plan for.

Privacy Issues

When you’re dealing with an employee’s health, you are dealing with that employee’s personal and legally protected information. Some companies have been sued over privacy violations for something as simple as sending a congratulatory email announcing progress toward health goals. Be extremely careful about what information you request and share with your wellness program.

Larger companies have less of a problem with this issue, because most have a legal department or staff of lawyers on retainer to guide wellness privacy issues. For your business, always err on the side of caution and ask your employees if it’s all right to talk about their participation.

Don’t Know Which Half

Wellness programs are a lot like that famous quote about advertising money: you’re probably wasting half the money you spend, but it’s hard to tell which half. If you offer a combination of discounted gym memberships, nutrition advice, afternoon naptime, and quarterly health screenings, which one of those is the most responsible for the health improvements you see? Does one go completely unused, while another is the real powerhouse behind your program?

Not only is it hard to determine the drivers in something this complex, it’s actually illegal to ask about some aspects of your program. Large companies have the budget to just “eat” the wasted resource costs, but small businesses must stay leaner.
All things considered, wellness programs are a net positive for the businesses that implement them. Although small businesses face unique challenges in making them successful, this month we will be focusing on ideas and inspiration to overcome those obstacles and make yours the healthiest business around!

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