This article was last updated July 16th, 2020
Employee wellness programs continue to move from being a nice perk to a must-have for companies looking to recruit the best talent. A healthy workplace attracts healthy employees! It is not a surprise that more companies are investing in wellness initiatives to encourage employees to stay healthy.
In the constant battle with turnover and employee disengagement, employee health and loyalty are valuable resources. Luckily, this asset can be earned and improved through wellness initiatives. Employees who felt their employer-provided benefits positively affected their lives were 40% more likely to say they were loyal to their company.
However, well-being is a broad subject including everything from physical fitness and financial wellness to mental health. How should employers design wellness programs to navigate these options?
Wellable compiled a list of fundamental and beneficial challenge ideas companies can run. Consider these challenges as a foundation that employers can build upon with fun themes that fit with an organization’s culture.
Below are 11 employee wellness program ideas to get any organization started.
1. Walking Challenges
Walking challenges are the most popular, straightforward, and well-known type of company fitness challenge when it comes to encouraging physical activity. There's a reason why it is such a popular component of an employee wellness program and highly recommended: it works. Countless research has revealed the benefits of walking for employee wellbeing. People just don’t do enough of it.
It is also great because both in-office as well as remote employees can participate, creating more opportunities for employees to mingle and socialize.
Walking challenges are a great first wellness initiative to kick off a health and wellness program at any organization. Soon, you might start seeing employees hold walking meetings to get more steps in for their challenge!
Walking Challenge Ideas
Downsides to a walking challenge are few and lie mainly on the means an employer chooses to track and incentivize participation. For example, it is tough to get strong engagement when employees are forced to track and enter steps manually. Many individuals won’t participate if they don't have a device that connects to the platform to automatically sync their steps.
Choosing a platform that connects to a board range of technology. This way, employees can participate without resorting to manual entry. It removes many barriers to participation and engagement.
Another major downside is that walking challenges can become dry over time. To resolve this, gamify the experience using various themes and fun graphics, such as "Climb the Mt. Everest" or "Swim Across The Hudson River!" Check out and borrow some winning ideas from Wellable's sample challenge themes!
2. Habit-Building Challenges
Healthy habits include drinking enough water throughout the day, taking the stairs, or getting appropriate amounts of sleep. Together, many small healthy habits like these make a big difference in individual health. A healthy lifestyle, after all, just consists of many small healthy behaviors.
Individually, these habits are not difficult to adopt. The challenge comes from doing them consistently over time and making them a natural part of an everyday routine. To avoid overwhelming participants, resist the urge to introduce too many new habits at once. Instead, slowly add and introduce new habits one-by-one.
For example, the first week of the challenge might be dedicated to drinking more water. Once employees are used to this, start introducing something new, such as eating a handful of nuts every day.
Remember that some habits are harder to build than others and might take participants longer to adopt. Habits such as "go for a 1-mile run every day" or taking advantage of one's gym membership regularly might take up to 30 days to become natural. While these health behaviors take longer to build, they also significantly contribute to long-term health. You just need to be patient and work with participants using a reasonable pace.
To track daily habits, you could use a Google Sheet or designate accountability partners. If you have the budget, you can use a platform that lets you digitally track these activities every day. These platforms are more affordable than you think!
3. New Hire Challenges
Workplace wellness challenges for new hires are not necessarily a challenge theme. However, it is a very effective strategy in employee retention and therefore worth considering. New hire challenges help communicate to new employees that their health and wellness are important parts of the organization’s culture. This will hopefully increase engagement during their first few weeks with the company, as well as boosting employee morale. Check out this post for specific ideas on new hire challenges.
Even better, make it a team challenge to build a sense of camaraderie among new team members. Some of the challenges in the post are similar to the ones mentioned here. However, they are designed with the goal of integrating new hires into the company’s culture of health quickly and smoothly.
4. Nutrition Challenges
Proper eating is an essential part of overall wellness. However, it is often the most difficult to address. Many workplace wellness challenges, for this reason, miss out on the opportunity to help their employees develop healthy eating habits.
A worksite wellness challenge around nutrition can be approached in many ways. For example, employers can organize catered healthy lunch groups with free meals and reward participation as well as providing healthy options for snacks (who doesn't want free food!?).
Employees can also be paired up with "accountability partners” that work to hold each other accountable. Partners encourage each other to choose a healthy meal and participate in other health promotion activities.
Alternatively, a nutritionist or health coach can be brought in to deliver a series of nutrition webinars/seminars. Employees can earn points for participating in educational events or talking to a nutritionist to improve their current eating habits, and healthy snacks can be served at the event!
Similar to other challenges, there is a "tech angle" for employers who'd like to push digital wellness. Nutrition-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal can be helpful in this case. Employees can get rewarded for consistently tracking their nutritional intake through apps.
Word Of Caution
Nutrition challenges should not be about punishing employees for eating certain foods. Similarly, it should not be a weight loss challenge. Instead, it should focus on encouraging consistent tracking of food intake. Wellable has reported extensively on the efficacy (or lack thereof) of Biggest Loser-type programs. They just don’t work.
Employees should be guided to focus more on how nutrition can enable them to live better lives.
Also, employers do not need to pour through everyone's nutrition log to make a difference. Many studies have shown that merely tracking food improves one's eating quality. There’s no need to associate negative emotions of food avoidance and being forced to lose weight with the challenge. In other words, just encouraging employees to write down what they eat will nudge them to reach for healthier foods on the shelf.
5. Mindfulness Challenges
Mental health has become an essential topic for employers in recent months. Employers should be hyper-aware of how their employees manage stress and burnout. Wellness services, such as meditation seminars, can be turned into wellness challenges by rewarding consistent participation.
However, there are limitations to these in-person sessions. Not everyone in your organization has the flexibility to attend consistently. Additionally, seminars can become costly over time. Utilizing technology is an alternative to address this.
Employees can use many apps, such as Headspace (paid) or Insight Timer (free) on their own time. Employees can report their usage of these apps for the challenge through surveys or Google Sheets. Incentive can be provided based either on duration (meditation minutes) or day streaks. can be based either on duration (meditation minutes) or day streaks.
Some wellness challenge platforms integrate with these meditation apps. Similar to the nutrition challenge above, users can get rewarded for the consistent use of these mental wellness apps!
6. Financial Wellness Challenges
It should come as no surprise that employees struggle with financial well-being. Research shows that they may bring their struggles to work, affecting their productivity and health. Employers, as a result, are also negatively impacted by these financial worries.
For this reason, financial well-being programs are rising in popularity. They appeal to a broad range of audiences. From college grads with student debt to older millennials with mortgages, most people can benefit from better financial wellness.
However, it is hard to build the “challenge” component into financial wellness. Financial information is sensitive, and most people don’t want to share it with their colleagues. Therefore, the best means to incorporate financial wellness into a challenge is through education.
Employers can hold webinars or provide employees with self-paced educational tools, and reward based on participation. For example, employees can earn points for attending a financial planning webinar or meeting with a company-sponsored financial adviser.
Admittedly, it is not easy to build a challenge solely around financial wellness. This type of challenge will work better complementing a comprehensive employee wellness challenge or other kinds of challenges mentioned above.
7. Sustainability Challenges
Often, employee health and wellness programs or challenges focus on improving personal or organizational health. While this goal is undoubtedly worth pursuing, paying attention to each individual’s impact on the environment is also essential and should not be overlooked.
The simple goal of sustainability is to create and maintain an environment where humans and nature can exist in productive harmony. In an effort to support individual health and long-term ecological balance, sustainability challenges provide participants with an opportunity to focus on their personal well-being by engaging in activity as well as the well-being of the planet by learning how to easily incorporate sustainable practices into their everyday lives.
The two overlap more than one would think, and in many cases (e.g., biking to work), the benefits even include other aspects of well-being, such as financial wellness from the money saved from engaging in the practice.
As the description above suggests, a sustainability challenge should focus on personal health and environmental health. The personal health component can be addressed through a physical activity, nutrition, or other types of health-related challenges.
On the other hand, the environmental health component can be delivered through education on and engagement in sustainable activities. For example, employees can earn points for learning about sustainability or working on the company’s garden/urban farm.
While unique from many of the other challenges introduced earlier, a sustainability challenge is equally important in that it provides an opportunity for an employer to demonstrate corporate values and culture to employees.
As employees “get their hands dirty” in sustainability, they truly recognize the footprint they leave on the environment and acquire sustainable habits for life.
8. Charity Challenge
A Harvard Business School study found that empowering employees to support causes of their choice is more satisfying than receiving a bonus. Charitable giving has been scientifically proven to make people feel good.
So here's a wellness idea: using charitable giving as an incentive for employees to improve their own wellbeing! Staying healthy while giving to others - it's a win-win!
Charity challenges can be designed to promote any aspect of wellness, such as physical, mental, or financial, using charitable giving as rewards. For example, employees can work to earn points by participating in the challenge, and the points are then translated into wellness incentive in dollar amounts that can they can donate to a charity of their choice.
There are existing platforms that can make the administration process of contributing to multiple charities of employees’ choice easy. GlobalGiving, for example, is a gift card service that employees can use to fund more than 3,000 charities/projects across the world. Alternatively, organizations can choose one or more charities that align well with their visions and donate on behalf of the challenge winners.
9. Sleep Challenge
Many corporate wellness challenges focus on physical health by promoting fitness challenges, but neglect a critical component that fuels physical performance: sleep. Additionally, sleep plays a vital role in mental and emotional health, which makes it one of the most important wellness activities of one’s day.
Many chronic disease have been linked to insufficient sleep, which leads to high health care costs for both the employee and the organization. Unfortunately, when work and life responsibilities mount, sleep quantity and quality is usually the first to take a hit, as evidenced by one in three U.S. adults not getting enough sleep.
This obstacle around sleep presents an opportunity for your worksite wellness program to support workers. Sleep challenges, as the name suggests, should focus on educating employees on the importance of a good night’s rest and ways to practice healthy sleep habits.
The educational content can be delivered through webinars/seminars, videos, or articles, and the "challenge" piece can come from administering quizzes on the topic. These quizzes should act as a learning reinforcement rather than an evaluation tool; employees should be rewarded for participation – not based on their score.
The end goal of the challenge should be ensuring that participants walk away with actionable items they can implement for better sleep, not feeling bad because they didn't do well on an assessment.
Additionally, since various activities during the day heavily influence sleep quality (exercise, nutrition, stress, etc.), sleep challenges can be multi-faceted and cover topics that are related to but also beyond just sleep. For example, a sleep challenge can include a physical activity, pre-bedtime meditation, and nutrition (eating foods that are conducive to good sleep).
One word of caution here: even though it is tempting to add all the elements at once, it is better to introduce them one-by-one. Participants will retain the information better if they don't feel overwhelmed, or even worse, discouraged because they feel like they cannot follow all the recommendations.
10. Vacation Exploration Challenge
In an era where unlimited paid time off is becoming more popular, employees are taking less vacation time. More than half of Americans don't use all of their paid vacation days, citing worries about work as the most significant factor holding them back. A different survey found that 36% of Americans took their last vacation more than two years ago, and 51% haven't taken leave in more than a year. Even when they do take their time off, many find it difficult to unplug and disconnect from their job, continuing to check work emails or take calls.
At first glance, employees leaving paid time off on the table might seem to be good news for employers. Employers may think that more work hours should equal more productivity. However, a growing body of research has shown that unplugging from work actually increases productivity, cognitive function, creativity, and problem-solving.
Other studies show that vacation provides recovery time from workday stress, enabling an employee to live longer and healthier, improve reaction time, sleep better, gain a fresh perspective about work challenges, reduce anxiety and depression, and feel more productive.
One study even found that employees who use the most vacation days have better performance reviews and higher retention rates, reflecting high employee satisfaction.
One way a corporate wellness program can help their people take more vacation days is by discussing the importance and benefits of taking time off and different ways to spend a vacation (it doesn't always mean traveling - staycations can be equally restorative!).
Similar to a sleep challenge, the educational content can be delivered through webinars/seminars, videos, or articles, and the "challenge" piece can come from administering quizzes on the topic. These quizzes should act as a learning reinforcement rather than an evaluation tool; employees should be rewarded for participation – not based on their score.
The end goal of the challenge should be ensuring that participants walk away with actionable items they can implement, not feeling bad because they didn't do well on an assessment.
11. Social Challenge
In a post-COVID world, more people than ever before are working remotely. Since the workplace has traditionally been a common location for meeting and developing friendships that extend beyond job interactions, not having these interactions is why employees view loneliness as one of the biggest struggles of working remotely.
Extended periods of social isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health and behavioral challenges. In addition to the health detriments employees may experience, social isolation can also have a substantial impact on productivity.
Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index found that lonely individuals were also less productive, more likely to miss work, and less able to submit quality work. This is why employers, especially those with remote workforces, need to proactively address the impacts that isolation and social disengagement may have on employee mental health and productivity.
This is where a workplace wellness program can shine. Team-based wellness challenges are a great way to create a sense of community and maintain employee engagement, even while adhering to social distance measures. For instance, Wellable’s Teams Of Two Challenge uses the power of partnership to encourage social interaction and motivate participants as they compete with a partner—in teams of two! Participants can work with their teammate to stay physically active to get to the top of the leaderboard.
With team-based challenges like these, employees can feel a sense of community without having to be in the same building, state, or even country. You can let employees choose their teams, organize teams by functional group, or even randomly assign teams to promote interactions that would not otherwise happen.
Which One To Choose?
The ideal challenge(s) for each organization will vary based on their specific goals and objectives. No two cultures are the same, and every employee has unique personal goals.
Don’t cover all these areas at once in a single challenge. Instead, break out the various topics by challenges. This will prevent employees from becoming overwhelmed. Many will start out with steps, as this is the easiest one for employees to join. Then, advance to the other areas as the population becomes more accustomed to wellness at work.
Also, you’re not limited to just challenges. While competition can bring the best out of people, it can be discouraging to non-competitive employees. There are other workplace wellness ideas you can try! Just focus on creating a healthy work environment for everybody. You can do this by putting together a break room or a nap room with pillows, light blankets, and yoga mats. Offer informational content on health and wellness in the employee newsletter. Whatever you choose to do, focus on creating a culture of health. Only then will your initiatives create lasting impacts