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  • Writer's pictureKaren O'Keefe OTR/L

Overcoming Obstacles in the Workplace

workplace wellness program.
The key to a successful workplace wellness program? Keep the best interest of the employee in mind.

Workplace wellness, which is really any health promoting campaign done in the workplace, is becoming increasingly popular. While these wellness programs used to be only for corporate companies, many smaller businesses are now offering this perk within their employee benefit package.

Despite the increase in popularity, there are still many challenges of wellness in the workplace that need to be addressed in order to have a positive impact on both the employees and the employers.

Why Workplace Wellness?

A well thought out and structured wellness program can have many benefits. Unfortunately, not all wellness programs are created equal and this can lead to both employers and employees experiencing many challenges of wellness in the workplace.

But when done correctly, workplace wellness aims to prevent and improve chronic diseases associated with modifiable lifestyle risk factors.

This is achieved through increasing physical activity level, promoting more nutritional food choices, and encouraging employees to work on their overall mental well-being.

There is so much research on the positive health benefits associated with workplace wellness.

For example:

  • Reduction in risk of developing cardiovascular disease¹

  • Improved frequency and volume of exercise²

  • Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables²

  • Increased requests for use of health coaching²

  • Improved productivity³

  • Reduction in missed days of work

    • Absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent⁴

  • Overall increased health care savings

    • Every $1 spent on a wellness program yields $6 in health care savings⁵

Lifestyle management education is a key component to a successful wellness program. But it is not the only aspect to consider. When creating a workplace wellness program you need to be aware of all of the challenges of wellness in the workplace in order to reap all of the benefits.

Challenges of Wellness in the Workplace

One of the biggest challenges to overcome is the exact meaning of wellness. The word wellness can have many different interpretations and workplace wellness itself does not have an all encompassing definition. A wellness program for one company may look different when compared to a different company.

According to the International Journal of Health Policy and Management, there is no uniform definition of the term “wellness program”, especially in legal terms, in the healthcare field, or from a workplace perspective.

One company may offer free medical testing, weight loss programs, and have regular Fitbit challenges while another company offers free gym memberships, health coaching, and lunches with healthy, nutritional options. Both companies provide two totally different wellness programs.

Besides these variables in the definition and programming of wellness programs, companies need to consider how to best promote and encourage wellness participation and the legalities behind implementing a workplace wellness program.

Participation Obstacle

To have a successful wellness program, employees need to participate. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is deciding if the workplace wellness program is voluntary or mandatory and with that, will they provide rewards or punishment for participation?

For example:

If you join a gym, membership will be free for the employee as the employer is paying the cost. But, if you opt out of joining a gym, the employee will then have to pay more in health insurance premiums.

Or, for instance, the employer decides to reduce costs of health insurance premiums for those that either do not smoke, who are at an appropriate weight, or who have low blood pressure. And on the flipside, increase the costs for smokers, employees who are overweight, and those who have high blood pressure.

Should the employer only provide rewards, or should they punish those that do not meet requirements? Are rewards or punishments more incentivizing? What is fair and what is the right way to help employees gain the most benefit for themselves, and then in return, benefit the company?

Or could incentive based wellness programs be completely unfair, no matter if you reward or punish? Any incentive program could result in punishing a population of employees that would benefit most from reduced health care expenses and assistance in improving their health, but is currently not able to due financial reasons or current life circumstances.⁶

Legality Obstacles

When creating a workplace wellness program, other challenges to consider are the ways in which a company defines any aspect of the program.

Legally, defining what an appropriate body mass index or weight is acceptable in order to be “rewarded” is a very slippery slope as the employee is protected by the American Disability Act and cannot be “punished” for their body or their health status.

Discussion of body size needs to be handled professionally, delicately, and with possible legal assistance in order to avoid any ramifications.

Another legal challenge of wellness in the workplace is the privacy of the employee health information. Some wellness programs may require collection of detailed health history and companies need to ensure that this information and any storage of this information is HIPPA compliant.

According to Corporate Wellness Magazine, employees do not trust their employers with information about their health and they believe that their employer may use it against them in some way, even to the point of firing them if their employer found out they have an expensive health condition.

In summary, some of the challenges of wellness in the workplace include:

  • No clear definition of what wellness is and what wellness programs should incorporate

  • Providing incentives for participation through reward or punishment

  • Legalities in terms of ADA and privacy

How to Overcome These Obstacles in Workplace Wellness?

The benefits of wellness in the workplace are undeniable, for both the employee and the employer. But clearly, there are challenges of wellness in the workplace that need to be overcome.

If you are just starting to plan a workplace wellness program, or if you are looking to modify yours, follow these suggestions to improve your process:

  • Keep the best interest of the employee in mind

  • Do your research and consider the legal and ethical implications

  • Create a team of people to manage the program

  • Ask for honest feedback from the employees

  • Be open to modifying or trying new programs

  • Test a smaller scale wellness program before committing to a full-blown program

    • This smaller scale program could begin with ergonomic assessments, education on wellness in the workplace, and eventually build into a full program based off of how users respond

  • Communicate about the positive impact of a wellness program in order to provide incentive instead of rewarding or punishing

  • And create a safe space for open communication between employee and employer so that everyone feels safe to talk about potentially sensitive information



Karen O’Keefe, OTR/L has combined her passion for Hand Therapy with the rewards Ergonomics can bring to her clients over the past 32 years. Co-founder of Exeter Therapy Associates and now Access Sports Medicine, she has specialized in Ergonomics in the workplace, along with musculoskeletal and neurological injuries.

Karen is equally passionate about hiking, biking and cooking. She lives with her husband in Kittery, Maine.


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