HR Leads Business

Sep 8, 2020 | Clare Chiappetta, MA, HRCI Contributing Writer

Designing Wellness Programs for Remote Teams

The sudden, widespread adoption of remote work in response to the pandemic has revolutionized where and how many of us work. These changes have created new challenges and opportunities in compensation and benefits, particularly wellness programs.

But remote work isn’t necessarily bad for health and wellness. In fact, remote employees were 15 percentage points more likely than in-office workers to feel mentally healthy because of their work environment, a survey by Paychex found. The same research found that 42% of remote employees said their work environment positively impacted their fitness level.

A wellness program optimized for remote teams can tap into that potential. Here’s how to design and implement a wellness program that meets your distributed workforce’s health and wellness needs.

Take a Comprehensive Approach

Remote wellness programs need to address all aspects of health. On-site wellness programs have traditionally leaned more into physical health, says Amanda Osburn, SPHR®, a corporate wellness and benefit consultant. Remote work introduces new challenges and stressors to the workplace. “Right now, there is a much bigger focus on social connection and emotional well-being,” she says.

Remote workers might feel isolated, for example, especially if they don’t live with family members. “The people who are most at risk of mental health crises are younger workers,” suggests Anne-Lise Gere, SPHR, owner and principal at Gere Consulting Associates LLC. Younger workers are more likely to live alone and feel amplified effects from social distancing. 

Virtual wellness programs offer unprecedented opportunities for connection with colleagues at different locations and levels within the organization, Gere says. A virtual yoga class once a month, for example, serves the dual purpose of teaching workers how to destress and letting them connect with peers.

Pinpoint Specific Wellness Needs

Even if you had data on workforce wellness needs before COVID-19, it’s vital to collect current data on your newly remote teams. Start by conducting anonymous surveys. Worker health is a sensitive and highly personal topic, so preface the survey with a statement emphasizing anonymity, detailing the reasons for collecting wellness data, and explaining how data will be used and stored, says Dani Kimlinger, SPHR, CEO and Partner at MINES and Associates. 

Create surveys that are quantitative but also allow workers to share specific concerns or suggestions, she says. Employees might bring up back and shoulder pain, for example. If this is a common complaint, a virtual presentation from a specialist on establishing an ergonomic home office could be valuable.

Record participation numbers and conduct frequent follow-up surveys to assess your remote wellness program’s effectiveness. Assemble a representative committee to help evaluate and adjust the program as needed. In a distributed workforce, direct managers have the most contact with individual team members and can provide valuable insights into the program’s efficacy.

Optimize Wellness Programs for Remote Delivery

Prioritize programs that team members can use from home. Virtual classes, for example, are cost-effective and extremely accessible. Be mindful, however, of differences in home environments and potential distractions. “Consider the individual differences in the resources and tools that workers have at home,” Kimlinger says. Keep program offerings short, and schedule brief activities during the workday, so employees feel empowered to participate.

It doesn’t matter how effective your wellness program is, however, if workers don’t know it’s there. Don’t limit communication about wellness offerings to open enrollment, Osburn says. Employees receive a lot of information about benefits at that time and may not retain all of it — especially if the information is delivered by video call while team members are exposed to distractions at home. 

Instead, highlight resources frequently. Consider sending a regular email newsletter containing resources, or cultivate awareness throughout the year by holding months dedicated to financial literacy or mental health awareness, for example. Finally, because direct managers are the most frequent point of contact, train them on wellness offerings so they can recommend programs as they recognize specific stressors or wellness pain points in team members.