Building a Healthier Workplace

According to the World Health Organisation a healthy workplace is one in which workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of workers and the sustainability of the workplace by considering:

  • health and safety concerns in the physical work environment
  • health, safety and well-being concerns in the psychosocial work environment including organisation of work and workplace culture
  • personal health resources in the workplace and
  • ways of participating in the community to improve the health of workers, their families and other members of the community.

Essentially healthy workplaces offer a work environment designed to boost the mental and physical wellbeing of employees through a whole of organisation appreciation of the benefits of doing so. There are a range of measureable benefits to be had for both employees and employers of building a healthier workplace and healthier work habits and these include:

  • Improved employee productivity and performance
  • Reduced absenteeism and a reduction in costs associated with ill health
  • Fewer injuries and accidents
  • Fewer insurance and compensation claims
  • Improved employee morale, engagement and staff retention
  • A workforce which is more receptive to and better able to cope with change
  • Enhanced business reputation and corporate responsibility

Workplace health and wellness programs can focus on a broad range of health areas and the type of program most suited to your workplace will depend on the nature of the work conducted, the health concerns of employees and the overall objectives of the program. However, according to the Australian Heart Foundation most successful workplace wellness programs will target at least some of the following areas:


Healthy eating can significantly impact an employee’s ability to do their job effectively by, for example, improving their ability to concentrate. Workplace nutrition programs educate employees about food choices and equip them to make healthier food and drink choices. Organisations can ensure there are healthy choices available in staff rooms, vending machines and office meetings and functions, plus provide easy access to fresh fruit and healthy snacks.

Physical activity

In addition to healthy eating, physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Workplace health programs can offer employees opportunities to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives and also provide an environment that supports physical activity.


Smokers tend to fall ill more frequently than nonsmokers. Promoting services, such as the Quitline or allowing time to see a doctor to discuss quitting smoking, are valid options for employers to include in their workplace health programs.

Stress management

Stress itself takes a toll on employees. Stress is also linked to other health concerns, such as depression, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Workplace health programs that help employees manage stress can improve their health and wellbeing.

Introducing a workplace wellness program doesn’t require a large financial investment but there are a number of stages you’ll need to go through to ensure the implementation is successful and that the program is effective and well received.


Obtain management support

Strong support from the highest levels of management within your organisation is essential to build a workplace culture which supports health and wellbeing and an environment which enables employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If managers are seen to be embracing the idea then there is a great chance that employees will follow suit.

Gaining commitment from managers may require you to make a strong evidence based business case for the wellness program and in making your case you may like to talk about

  • Proof of ROI based on case studies of similar companies
  • An outline of the scope of the program and examples of how and why the program would benefit the organisation and employees
  • Examples of how physical activity, good nutrition and a healthier lifestyle could benefit employees
  • Information on how much poor health, absenteeism, insurance and compensation claims cost the organisation
  • Initial budget estimates on what the program would cost

Secure staff and budget

Initiating a staff wellness program requires someone to step up and make it an organisational priority. This role often falls into the lap of HR but doesn’t have to. If you haven’t got the budget to hire a full time person or agency to run the program for you look at other people within the organisation who may have an interest in running the project. One passionate employee is all you need to drive the program in a small to medium sized organisation.

Building a healthier workplace doesn’t require a huge financial outlay but it requires adequate and sustained funding over the long term. People interested in workplace wellness programs should have the goal of securing funding as a permanent part of the organisation’s operating budget. In preparing initial budget estimates you’ll need to consider the cost of equipment and supplies associated with running the program and communicating the program within the organisation, the cost of staff, the cost of incentives or rewards for participation, other costs associated with your specific program goals and objectives.

Involve employees

To ensure the wellness program addresses the true needs of employees you’ll need to establish a representative group of employees to provide input and advise on the program. Employees can provide input via surveys, workshops and/or focus groups or through something as uncomplicated as a suggestion box. Some employees may prefer to provide input anonymously so you should keep this in mind during the consultation process.

Employees should be asked specific questions which identify the key areas of concern and facilitate the development of a wellness program which targets those concerns, questions may include: What health issues would you like the organisation to focus on? What activities/resources would you like offered? When would you like to access the wellness program? What are the challenges you face in participating in workplace activities?


Identify goals

Once you have gained input from employees you should have a clear idea of the areas your program needs to focus on. From these priorities define clear and measureable goals for improving employee health and the organisational culture. For example if employees mention they are concerned about nutrition make it a company policy to include affordable healthy food choices in the canteen, make healthy choices available in the vending machine or organise for a vendor offering healthy choices to visit the workplace at lunch times.

An important part of this stage is to conduct an audit of any programs, resources or activities currently on offer as they may need to be reviewed in line with the new program objectives, retired or rebranded as part of the new program.

You will also need to examine the aspects of your organisational culture, physical environment and work to assess whether any current practices discourage healthy behaviour patterns.

Develop a plan of attack

Once you have identified the program goals and objectives in line with the interests and needs of employees and the budget it’s time to develop an action plan. The unique goals of your workplace will help determine the best course of action and your budget will define the scale of the activities you offer. Activities can range in scale from something as simple as a lunch time walking club right through to something more complicated such as bringing in an agency to run workshops on healthy eating or programs to help people stop smoking.

Developing a strategy which has a range of different options and activities is more likely to gain traction among employees as it will ensure there is something on offer for everyone. This is especially so if the activities have been developed based on employee feedback. Remember the best way to ensure success is to make healthy choices the easier choices and using this as a guiding principle will help guarantee the success of your program.

Build a vision and a ‘brand’

Building a vision and brand statement for your organisation’s wellness program will help turn it from an idea into reality. A succinct vision statement should clearly summarise the reasons for creating a culture of health and will remind everyone of the link between employee health and wellbeing and your organisation’s ability to achieve its mission. Choose a strong name for the program and use the name on all communications with employees so they understand it is here to stay.

Employees could be involved in naming the program and you should be able to develop a strongly targeted vision statement once you have established the goals and action plan for your wellness program.

Consider incentives

Rewarding or incentivising staff to participate in wellness activities is likely to increase participation rates and motivation. Incentives could range from certificates and small prizes for employees who reach their goals, to competitions, public recognition, merchandise to facilitate healthy living such as water bottles, healthy reward lunches or morning tea for employees or discounted sports club memberships.



Communication should start before the start date for your new wellness program and should be ongoing. Using the brand you have developed promote the new program and the activities and resources on offer using staff intranet, bill boards, newsletters and verbally as soon as the start date is confirmed and you have clear idea of how the program will be rolled out. Building awareness and anticipation takes time and the earlier start the more likely it is your messages will find their mark.

Strategies to promote the new program could include a countdown on the intranet, a launch event such as a healthy lunch or an inspirational guest speaker, posters around the workplace or a news bulletin.
It is important to keep communicating in the long term to ensure new employees are aware of the program, to advise/remind employees about upcoming activities and to report on progress.

Roll out

Once you have clearly identified your objectives and developed a range of strategies designed to target those objectives you need to implement the activities. You may like to conduct the roll out using a staged approach, to avoid overwhelming people and to ensure buy in from the outset. The amount of time required to roll out each stage of the program will to some extent be determined by your budget, operational constraints and take up rates but it’s important to maintain a long term view of the project and to accept that improving operational and organisational culture takes time!

Measure and report on results

Measuring and reporting on the success of your wellness program is crucial to ensure future buy in, maintain momentum among employees and to drive future innovation and changes in line with feedback. More importantly it is the best way to determine whether or not the program is meeting its stated goals and objectives. To ensure your program is responsive and in a state of continuous improvement it’s important to measure and review results at least annually.

Keep in mind the fact that measuring success and ROI will be much easier if you build it into your planning in the early stages so you can create systems for collecting information. It’s important to report both your successes in building a healthy workplace environment (such as implementation of a policy that provides employees time for walking during the workday), and successes in encouraging employees to take charge of their health (such as an increase in the number of employees involved in the stop-smoking program or an increase in the number of fresh fruit purchased from the cafeteria following a promotion and price-cut).

Another important aspect to measure is employee feedback on the success of the program and activities. Using surveys and feedback forms to ask employees what they liked, what they would like to see improved and how well organised the activities were will facilitate continuous improvement and ensure any changes made meet employee needs.


Healthy Workplace Guide: Ten steps to implementing a workplace health program, Heart Foundation

Prevention Minnesota, Blue Cross Foundation

1. What’s the hard return on employee wellness programs? Harvard Business Review,
Leonard L. Berry, Ann M. Mirabito, William B. Baun

 This Better Workplace Bulletin was First Published in March 2013