How to build an employee wellbeing programme

What makes for an effective employee wellbeing programme and how can OH and HR professionals convince senior leaders that investing in workplace wellbeing is worth the time, money and effort? Sarah Silcox explores the challenges with those who have developed effective approaches.

Ensuring that employees are “happy and here” is a growing focus for many OH and HR departments. Most employers run ad hoc wellbeing activities in the workplace over the course of a typical year, often tying in with a national awareness-raising day or campaign involving changing a particular health-related behaviour, for example, National Stress Awareness Day or No Smoking Day.

More resources on employee wellbeing

Good practice on wellbeing

Employee wellbeing policy

However, moving from this kind of approach to a more strategic wellbeing programme requires a significant degree of planning, aligned with the organisation’s broader business or service plan.

Developing a coherent programme of wellbeing initiatives, rather than running ad hoc activities is a vital part of moving towards a strategic, holistic approach to workplace health. Designing a strategic plan, perhaps under a branded umbrella programme name, makes it possible to move from one activity to the next, securing employee engagement as you go.

Wellbeing strategy

However, deciding to build a wellbeing programme does not necessarily mean that an organisation needs a formal wellbeing strategy. Those with experience say that the ethos in their organisation is that wellbeing is embedded into all plans and policies, rather than existing as an “add on” in a standalone, separate policy. In these organisations, wellbeing is mainstreamed in all activities, removing the risk that it becomes a “nice to have”, but side-lined exercise.

“We use a framework rather than a policy, which sets out what the organisation will do now, what we plan for the future, but also what the organisation will not do in the wellness area,” says Alistair Dornan, head of health management at Capita Employee Benefits.

His firm has created a series of “house views” on a small number of critical issues, for example, nutrition, mental health and physical activity. Each house view is supported by specific programmes to tackle these issues. “There are plenty of providers out there trying to sell solutions for all sorts of workplace wellbeing issues, making it essential to focus on just a few,” Dornan says, adding that organisations do not need to spend a great deal of money to run programmes, particularly if they are able to link to national, well-resourced campaigns. The team behind Juice, an online platform of about 90 wellbeing activities operating for staff at Sheffield University, did not start by writing a long complex strategy or policy.

“We wanted to get straight down to business and start running activities so that people would experience the programme rather than read about it,” says Andrew Dodman, HR director at the university. His team developed the concept in late 2011, pieced it together, and launched Juice as a pilot in July 2012 before going live in November 2012.

Similarly, professional services firm Arup (winner of the Personnel Today Award for Health and Wellbeing in 2015) does not have a formal wellbeing policy. The company operates on a “light touch” basis by encouraging people to follow patterns of behaviour: “Our people do not like to be tied up by process; we are a relationship business,” Evan Davidge, head of reward for Arup’s UK-MEA region, points out.

Making the business case

It is vital to make the business case for an employee wellbeing programme if it is to make any difference to engagement, productivity and, ultimately, organisational performance. The in-house champions of the proposed programme must understand the wider organisational strategy and how wellbeing activities might dovetail with the senior leadership’s plans for the wider business.

“Some organisations still make the mistake of saying to senior management that wellbeing is a ‘nice thing to have’ or ‘we need to do it because our competitors do’, which tends to limit management’s perception of the issue to a purely health one,” according to Dornan.

Do’s and don’ts for effective wellbeing programmes

Wellbeing experts offer tips on creating an effective wellbeing programme and culture.


  • Ensure that the employee wellbeing programme concept is endorsed by senior leadership, and sign up a senion management “champion” if possible.
  • Be clear about what your wellbeing programme will, and will not, do in advance.
  • Think about how the programme will be branded.
  • Remember to build an element of evaluation into the programmes.
  • Embed the wellbeing programme into the business strategy.
  • Be mindful of the wellbeing offer that your existing healthcare providers might be able to supply at no, or low, additional cost (for example, explore your private medical insurance and employee assistance programme contracts for any wellbeing “extras” on offer).


  • Make the mistake of working on a “one-size-fits all” basis; do not over-prescribe programmes for individual employees but rather encourage staff to seek them out.
  • View work on the wellbeing programme as a “tick-box” exercise; make sure programmes are sustainable over the medium term.
  • Throw money at wellbeing, for example, make the most of initiatives run by charities and government agencies.
  • Expect to be an expert in all aspects of wellbeing; call on the expertise of others when you need to, but at the same time use external providers selectively.
  • Overstate the expected outcomes for the programme.

Dornan is responsible for Capita Employee Benefit’s in-house wellness programme, which is hinged on the organisation’s people development/engagement piece. In setting out the strategic ambition for wellness activities, Dornan and his colleagues made it clear to the senior leadership that, in addition to improvements in employee health, the organisation should also expect the programme to contribute to employee engagement, improved talent attraction and retention and a measurable improvement in organisational performance.

The initial work on a wellbeing programme at professional services firm Arup was part of a wider review of UK benefits. This revealed that employees wanted a better work/life balance, prompting the firm to undertake a “deep dive” analysis and to collect baseline data from the health risk assessments (HRA) that employees completed.

“In the first 12 months of offering HRAs, we got around 50% of our employees through, providing us with baseline data on a range of risks, for example, Body Mass Index (BMI) and stress/anxiety,” Davidge says. His team also demonstrated the business case for wellbeing by presenting the high cost of some medical claims, particularly for stress and some musculoskeletal disorders.

In contrast, Dodman and the team at Sheffield University developed the university’s wellbeing programme, Juice, without making a formal business case.

“Juice grew organically following a relatively soft launch as a pilot in July 2012. We started by engaging just a few managers, avoiding a big presentation of the business case and allowing the wellbeing activities to make the case for us,” Dodman explains.

“Almost before we knew it, staff were participating, which made the case for us without a top/down launch requiring lots of HR resource,” he adds. “We also engaged the executive board in Juice by inviting them to take part in its activities.”

Know your numbers

Understanding the metrics around employee health is vital in making the business case for wellbeing; for example, so that HR and OH can demonstrate the difference an effective programme makes to both individuals and the wider organisation. “HR and OH people need to link wellness into business objectives, such as the organisation’s creativity and innovation, and be able to report back on these metrics,” Dornan says.

It is crucial to evaluate the impact of wellbeing interventions in order to sustain programmes in the medium term. This is an area that the OH function has struggled with in the past, yet it is vital in order to justify past investment and to build leadership support for the next phase of a programme. HR and OH teams need to drop the common sole focus on health and talk to senior staff about the business outcomes from wellbeing, for example, how wellbeing initiatives support high-performing teams.

Many wellbeing programmes being developed are hosted online, making it relatively easy to collate anonymised data on participation rates. Staff surveys can also be used to measure responses to programmes and to explore how they contribute to wider employee engagement. Hard data on programme effectiveness is available, and often provides a graphic case for sustaining the effort.

Arup works hard with its health and EAP providers to cut long-term sickness absence, and the number of cases has fallen from a position where 3.9% of working time was lost to long-term absence to 0.1%; “very few cases now become long-term”, Davidge notes.

Engaging employees in an employee wellbeing programme

A wellbeing programme needs participants, but how can OH and HR engage employees, especially those traditional hard-to-reach groups? Branding is important, as is making the programme exciting and fun. Understanding the organisation’s demographics and pitching the activities accordingly can be effective. For example, a predominantly sedentary female call centre workforce is likely to have very different ideas about wellbeing activities to an active team based in the “field”.

It is also important that people working different shifts are able to access wellbeing activities, making it vital to engage an employer’s planning and resourcing team to match the availability of activities to shift patterns. Organisations need to keep the wellbeing offer fresh and be able to adapt to emerging health issues.

For example, Dornan says that his organisation recognises that employees’ financial wellness is becoming as important an issue as physical and mental health, particularly in the context of the new pension freedoms introduced in April 2015.

Using the data already present in an organisation’s systems to understand more about the issues people face, and where they need support, is key. For example, data on the causes of sickness absence, management information available from an employee assistance programme and information from occupational referrals can all be used to demonstrate ways in which a wellbeing programme makes a difference.

“Most organisations sit on a great data asset about the wellness of employees, for example, health risk assessments completed by employees are a great way of capturing data,” according to Dornan. Capita Employee Benefits uses this data to inform some “clever stuff”, he adds, most notably to build a picture of an average employee in a particular employee group; for example, a sub-group in the workforce where staff attrition is higher than average, or where career progression is low. A tool is used to map these different “persona” (or average employees) with data from the benefits platform to target groups with specific wellness initiatives.

The activities available at Sheffield University under the Juice umbrella are blended so that all employees can find something of interest, “from boot camps, though choirs and book clubs to meditation and relaxation sessions”, according to Dodman. The university also encourages staff to share their own talents and interests by running an activity: “if individual employees invite people to join a group, Juice will promote it and provide a space”, he adds.

One underpinning aim of Juice is to encourage individuals to make lifestyle decisions and the programme is not driven primarily by organisational objectives. “If people perceive the programme is about them, the business alignment will come as they start to become engaged, which ultimately benefits the university,” Dodman says. The university does, however, target particular groups with activities; for example, it runs a voice protection course for lecturers and adapts the timing of activities to fit in with the needs of cleaners and other shift workers.

“We also engage with individuals’ line managers so that they encourage their teams to take part. It’s all about looking at the potential barriers and ditching something if it is not getting the participation,” he adds.

Line manager role

Building an employee wellbeing programme requires the line managers to be engaged. Managers need to be shown that workplace wellbeing is vital to the organisation’s wider performance and not a fluffy add on. In some organisations, this may not be as hard as it seems; often it is line managers who are dealing with the fallout from poor wellbeing on a day-to-day business. For example, they are often the first to recognise the impact of an employee’s presenteeism on a team’s productivity.

However, it can be difficult to enable line managers with the time and resources to engage with this impact, given everything else they have to manage. This is where “shadow of a leader” can play a part; engage the senior management team in the wellbeing programme and it soon filters down to line managers.

Tips and hints

Davidge urges OH and HR professionals to commit to the long haul when it comes to developing wellbeing programmes: “behaviour change rarely happens overnight”. He also recommends that internal sponsors have a clear vision and passionate belief in what they are asking others in the organisation to sign up to and, where possible, get employee champions involved in putting the case and encouraging participation.

Dodman recommends that programme sponsors listen to staff and change programme activities if they are not getting the participation; in other words, be agile in what you offer. Finally, do not use HR speak in communicating the programme, or it will be perceived as boring and not fun.


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