June 29, 2021

How to design wellness benefits that employees actually use and appreciate

As an increasing number of employees experience stress and burnout, many organizations determined that investing in wellness is a top priority for improving their overall compensation and retention strategies. Unfortunately, some well-intentioned People Teams have been frustrated by trying to design a generous and inclusive wellness benefits program only to find that employees by and large don’t use or appreciate it. 

When it comes to wellness programs in particular, there are three commonly overlooked but important factors that facilitate an initiative’s impact. Here’s what they are and how to incorporate them:

#1 Be more flexible and inclusive

The top-rated employers aren’t just generous. They’re generous in a way that’s fine-tuned to their workforce’s needs and preferences. They eliminate guesswork by carefully listening to employee feedback and involving stakeholders in the decision-making process. 

We recommend these resources for surveying your employees:

You should also engage in one-on-one conversations with a diverse set of employees across all departments and levels within your organization. Focus on perceptions of compensation competitiveness, sources of both energy and stress, and examples of experiencing highs and lows. Probe at what employees are grateful for and disinterested in. 

Many high-growth organizations notice that their workforces have diverse needs and interests when it comes to personal wellness. Parents have completely different priorities compared to new graduates. Even two employees who meditate daily may prefer different techniques and apps. As well-intentioned as it may be, hand-picking individual wellness brands and creating one-size-fits-all benefits programs is a mistake. It isn’t inclusive and will bias toward one group’s preferences over another.

Instead, give your employees more flexibility and freedom to choose their own wellness journeys. An allowance that employees can use and then get reimbursed for is significantly more flexible than a predefined bundle of hand-selected brands. 

Further, the “discount” rates People Teams think they’re negotiating with Gympass and other marketplaces and merchants are often significantly worse than what your employees will get when you select a flexible wellness benefits solution.

For example, JOON is engineered to work with any wellness brand within an organization’s eligible benefits categories, from “Health & Wellness” to “Work From Home” to “Healthy Food Delivery.” The categories are smart and work globally with any merchant, so your employees aren’t limited by a predefined bundle. Not only that, but with thousands of employees on our platform, we are able to negotiate better rates and exclusive partnerships than individual employers can achieve independently.

#2 Remove friction for employees and admins

The best employers set ambitious goals for their wellness programs that are directly tied to employee utilization. They know that successful wellness programs can have significant upside for employers, returning a multiple on the investment into them. Simply checking a box with a nice-sounding benefit that employees can’t easily use will backfire and make your organization seem uncaring and unauthentic.

For example, some organizations offer gym reimbursements that require employees to show proof of a certain level of attendance. Not only does this add administrative overhead to both People Teams and employees, it directly signals that you think employees are dishonest. The cost of disgruntled employees and turnover far outweighs the cost-savings of adding friction.

Benefits shouldn’t be burdensome. If you’ve adequately budgeted for your program, utilization should be your top priority, not your arch-enemy. But even when you have the best intentions, it can be difficult to realize how much friction is in the way. 

For example, Commuter Benefits, Health Spending Accounts (HSA), and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) clearly have tax advantages with seemingly little friction (the latter even has “Flexible” in its name!). But in reality, few employees want money deducted upfront from their paychecks for a benefit they may or may not use with CVS receipt-length fine print. That’s not to say you shouldn’t make such programs available, but don’t expect to achieve greater than 30% utilization or “solve for wellness” with them. Lifestyle wellness benefits may not have the same tax advantages today but offer far fewer rules and regulations in the meantime.

Within lifestyle wellness benefits though, there is still a range of friction even if the overall utilization will tend to be higher than pre-tax benefits. Some solutions involve restrictive marketplaces that employees must login to for each purchase. Others distribute prepaid cards that employees must remember to use while hoping that they don’t get humiliatingly rejected when showing up for a fitness class that charges a penny more than their remaining spending limit. It’s important to compare the various approaches to lifestyle wellness benefits solutions.

JOON utilizes card-linking technology which is far more seamless employee experience and tends to achieve much higher utilization. Employees can link any of their existing personal credit or debit cards and get automatically reimbursed for eligible purchases.

#3 Continuously iterate and track key performance indicators

Every employee engagement initiative or benefits program is going to need ongoing tweaking and fine-tuning. Some initiatives sound great on paper but fall apart when rubber hits the road. Others are great at first but need to be updated as new trends and more modern wellness solutions become available.

Many organizations make the mistake of locking themselves into long-term contracts and commitments without the flexibility to adapt to changing trends and workforce needs. Whenever you engage a new vendor, demand contract flexibility! Ask for shorter contracts or pilot programs with mutually-defined success criteria such as the following:

  • Employee utilization (% that use benefit)
  • Employee feedback (% that appreciate benefit)
  • Employee outcomes (% increase in key performance indicators)
  • Cost and return on investment (impact on bottom line)

At JOON, we scrapped annual contracts in favor of month-to-month engagements to give employers total comfort to test and learn what works. We encourage piloting new benefits programs to a subset of employees first, before going all in on costly and irreversible company-wide rollouts.

Once you’ve committed to flexibility, seamlessness, and iteration, it’s time to start thinking about program design and optimization. Read our tips for optimizing your program →