4 ways to increase participation in workplace wellbeing programs


If 87 per cent of employees have access to workplace wellbeing programs, why are only 23 per cent using them? To mark Wellbeing Week, here are four ways to boost uptake.

In the last few years, your organisation might have rolled out free lunchtime yoga, sessions with a financial advisor, and meditation classes. But maybe these workplace wellbeing initiatives have been getting less-than-impressive uptake. 

Is it because employees aren’t happy with what you’ve offered? Probably not. There are likely more complex barriers in place. And this isn’t just happening in your workplace; the challenge is widespread.

While 87 per cent of employees have access to mental and emotional wellbeing programs, only 23 per cent are using them, according to Gartner’s 2021 EVP Benchmarking Survey.

As COVID-19 necessitated an even greater focus on employees’ wellbeing needs, 64 per cent of organisations introduced a new wellbeing offering in 2020, and 46 per cent increased their wellbeing budgets, according to Gartner’s 2020 Wellbeing Benchmarking Survey.

The low uptake might have left leaders wondering why they should bother investing in wellbeing programs at all: maybe employees don’t consider them helpful, or maybe their mental health is okay after all? That seems unlikely since we know COVID-19 has been linked to high levels of psychological distress.

To coincide with Wellbeing Week, Aaron McEwan, Vice President, Research and Advisory at Gartner, postures why uptake is so low, and suggests four ways organisations can get their wellbeing programs to stick.

1. Give employees more time to participate

It’s all well and good to offer engaging and holistic wellbeing programs, but if employees are constantly feeling overworked and fatigued, they’re unlikely to have the time or energy to participate in mental health initiatives.

McEwan says while it’s hard to definitively know the factors contributing to poor uptake of wellbeing programs, his “personal bet is on employees being time poor and exhausted”.

“Part of the problem is that our inability to manage hybrid work has led to the fact that most employees are working longer hours than they did prior to the pandemic, at a time when their mental health has been damaged the most.

“Capacity, energy and time – these are the main factors [to explain] why we’re not seeing these programs taken up.”

Although employers should be wary of issuing mandates without careful consideration, there is a strong case to be made for organisations taking a more directive approach by asking employees to take regular breaks and look after their mental health.

McEwan says white collar organisations would benefit from taking a similar stance to blue collar sectors in this regard.

“If you’re working on a construction site, having a morning tea break is mandated,” he says. “In the white collar world of remote and hybrid work, nobody is mandating that, but we have to think about these things through a safety lens.”

Team-wide or company-wide breaks scheduled into the calendar could  provide an opportunity for employers to implement wellbeing initiatives – for example, having regular morning meditation classes to break up workflow and put healthy habits in place.

“Good companies are creating space for employees to voluntarily engage in behaviours that are going to be good for them,” says McEwan. 

2. Create opt-out workplace wellbeing programs

There will always be a reason to not sign up to a wellbeing program: an employee may have a pressing deadline, a meeting clash or feel they’re unable to spare the time to participate in a wellbeing session.

But if companies adopt an ‘opt-out’ strategy, wellbeing programs may become a more integrated part of an employee’s routine.

In an opt-out program, employees are automatically enrolled in wellbeing programs, whether that’s fitness classes, meditation, or financial planning sessions.

“Opt out programs fall into the bucket of nudge theory,” says McEwan. “It’s about making the right thing to do be the easy thing to do.”

‘Wellbeing should be about the way that work is designed, and the way the organisation is structured. The model of providing wellbeing programs as benefits is a Band-Aid solution,” says McEwan.

Opt out programs set a standard that employees are not just encouraged, but expected, to participate in wellbeing programs, unless they explicitly choose not to.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education, provides strong support for the effectiveness of an opt-out approach. Despite high rates of burnout and depression in the medical profession, and the availability of workplace wellbeing programs, physicians were not forthcoming in signing up to the programs, the researchers observed.

Physicians in a medicine residency program at West Virginia University were scheduled to attend an appointment with a licensed therapist on a scheduled ‘wellbeing day’, with the option to opt out.

Ninety-three percent of physicians attended the session. Those who opted out were required to work, which likely provided added incentive to take part in the program. The majority reported high convenience, low levels of embarrassment if a colleague knew they had attended, and a high likelihood of returning if they felt they needed counselling.

These programs create a sense that wellbeing is an integrated part of an employee’s professional and personal development, and not something to tack onto a work day  if time permits.

“The bit that’s missing in a lot of approaches and what is going to help people maintain their wellbeing is to disconnect from work to forget about it and focus on themselves,” says McEwan.

3. Establish personalised programs

Less than half of employees (46 per cent) feel that their organisations’ wellbeing programs are personalised, according to Gartner research.

Mental health needs differ from employee to employee. What works for one person might not be quite right for another.

A personalised wellbeing program empowers an employee to establish their own wellbeing goals, and sign up to initiatives that help them to meet these goals.

Employees want to feel that a program is tailored to address their specific needs, and not a generic program, which could feed into the idea that wellbeing programs are designed for someone else, thus lowering uptake.

Setting up a personalised wellbeing program isn’t enough in and of itself. Managers need to follow up with their teams, and hold employees accountable. 

“It could be that they want to go for a bush walk. It could be that they want to do yoga. It could be that they just want to sit in a hammock and read a book, go for a walk with their dog, or run a marathon,” says McEwan. “Managers should be trying to help an employee have the time to achieve these personal goals.”

The first step is to establish a personalised program, he says, and not just throw more wellbeing offerings into the mix for all employees. 

“After a certain number of wellbeing initiatives, there’s a diminishing return. So it’s not just about providing these initiatives because they’re not always going to be taken up… Being able to choose your own adventure is really important,” says McEwan.

4. Model healthy behaviour

Unfortunately, there is still stigma attached to mental health issues and accessing support.

Seventy-five per cent of employers say stigma exists in their workplaces, according to McKinsey’s 2021 report. Within this group, many recognised their employees as being unwilling to share their health needs.

Leaders need to create a supportive environment that encourages individuals to talk about their mental health, take up opportunities to participate in wellbeing programs, and openly discuss this with their teams.

The value of leaders modelling healthy behaviours, and being ‘loud and proud’ about participating in wellbeing programs themselves, can encourage greater uptake among employees.

“Focus on engaging your leaders in the program, and then they will set those healthy behavioural expectations. Get leaders to talk about what their experience has been like [participating in a program] and what their health goals are,” says McEwan.

Setting these standards will help to trickle positive habits down the organisational hierarchy into middle management and their teams.

“If leaders are modelling healthy behaviours at work, that becomes a good lever to drive that behaviour for employees.”


There’s no point in having workplace wellbeing programs if your employees aren’t going to take part. Find out how you can best support employees with AHRI’s short course on Mental Health At Work.
Book in for the next course on 4 November.


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Linda Wells
Linda Wells
10 days ago

I did a workplace training for a regional council a few years ago, 400 staff, it was mandatory and the feedback was brilliant. So much engagement across the sectors. Nowadays, it’s not mandatory and I feel like some staff put quotation marks around the word ‘wellbeing’ but we can all benefit.

More on HRM

4 ways to increase participation in workplace wellbeing programs


If 87 per cent of employees have access to workplace wellbeing programs, why are only 23 per cent using them? To mark Wellbeing Week, here are four ways to boost uptake.

In the last few years, your organisation might have rolled out free lunchtime yoga, sessions with a financial advisor, and meditation classes. But maybe these workplace wellbeing initiatives have been getting less-than-impressive uptake. 

Is it because employees aren’t happy with what you’ve offered? Probably not. There are likely more complex barriers in place. And this isn’t just happening in your workplace; the challenge is widespread.

While 87 per cent of employees have access to mental and emotional wellbeing programs, only 23 per cent are using them, according to Gartner’s 2021 EVP Benchmarking Survey.

As COVID-19 necessitated an even greater focus on employees’ wellbeing needs, 64 per cent of organisations introduced a new wellbeing offering in 2020, and 46 per cent increased their wellbeing budgets, according to Gartner’s 2020 Wellbeing Benchmarking Survey.

The low uptake might have left leaders wondering why they should bother investing in wellbeing programs at all: maybe employees don’t consider them helpful, or maybe their mental health is okay after all? That seems unlikely since we know COVID-19 has been linked to high levels of psychological distress.

To coincide with Wellbeing Week, Aaron McEwan, Vice President, Research and Advisory at Gartner, postures why uptake is so low, and suggests four ways organisations can get their wellbeing programs to stick.

1. Give employees more time to participate

It’s all well and good to offer engaging and holistic wellbeing programs, but if employees are constantly feeling overworked and fatigued, they’re unlikely to have the time or energy to participate in mental health initiatives.

McEwan says while it’s hard to definitively know the factors contributing to poor uptake of wellbeing programs, his “personal bet is on employees being time poor and exhausted”.

“Part of the problem is that our inability to manage hybrid work has led to the fact that most employees are working longer hours than they did prior to the pandemic, at a time when their mental health has been damaged the most.

“Capacity, energy and time – these are the main factors [to explain] why we’re not seeing these programs taken up.”

Although employers should be wary of issuing mandates without careful consideration, there is a strong case to be made for organisations taking a more directive approach by asking employees to take regular breaks and look after their mental health.

McEwan says white collar organisations would benefit from taking a similar stance to blue collar sectors in this regard.

“If you’re working on a construction site, having a morning tea break is mandated,” he says. “In the white collar world of remote and hybrid work, nobody is mandating that, but we have to think about these things through a safety lens.”

Team-wide or company-wide breaks scheduled into the calendar could  provide an opportunity for employers to implement wellbeing initiatives – for example, having regular morning meditation classes to break up workflow and put healthy habits in place.

“Good companies are creating space for employees to voluntarily engage in behaviours that are going to be good for them,” says McEwan. 

2. Create opt-out workplace wellbeing programs

There will always be a reason to not sign up to a wellbeing program: an employee may have a pressing deadline, a meeting clash or feel they’re unable to spare the time to participate in a wellbeing session.

But if companies adopt an ‘opt-out’ strategy, wellbeing programs may become a more integrated part of an employee’s routine.

In an opt-out program, employees are automatically enrolled in wellbeing programs, whether that’s fitness classes, meditation, or financial planning sessions.

“Opt out programs fall into the bucket of nudge theory,” says McEwan. “It’s about making the right thing to do be the easy thing to do.”

‘Wellbeing should be about the way that work is designed, and the way the organisation is structured. The model of providing wellbeing programs as benefits is a Band-Aid solution,” says McEwan.

Opt out programs set a standard that employees are not just encouraged, but expected, to participate in wellbeing programs, unless they explicitly choose not to.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education, provides strong support for the effectiveness of an opt-out approach. Despite high rates of burnout and depression in the medical profession, and the availability of workplace wellbeing programs, physicians were not forthcoming in signing up to the programs, the researchers observed.

Physicians in a medicine residency program at West Virginia University were scheduled to attend an appointment with a licensed therapist on a scheduled ‘wellbeing day’, with the option to opt out.

Ninety-three percent of physicians attended the session. Those who opted out were required to work, which likely provided added incentive to take part in the program. The majority reported high convenience, low levels of embarrassment if a colleague knew they had attended, and a high likelihood of returning if they felt they needed counselling.

These programs create a sense that wellbeing is an integrated part of an employee’s professional and personal development, and not something to tack onto a work day  if time permits.

“The bit that’s missing in a lot of approaches and what is going to help people maintain their wellbeing is to disconnect from work to forget about it and focus on themselves,” says McEwan.

3. Establish personalised programs

Less than half of employees (46 per cent) feel that their organisations’ wellbeing programs are personalised, according to Gartner research.

Mental health needs differ from employee to employee. What works for one person might not be quite right for another.

A personalised wellbeing program empowers an employee to establish their own wellbeing goals, and sign up to initiatives that help them to meet these goals.

Employees want to feel that a program is tailored to address their specific needs, and not a generic program, which could feed into the idea that wellbeing programs are designed for someone else, thus lowering uptake.

Setting up a personalised wellbeing program isn’t enough in and of itself. Managers need to follow up with their teams, and hold employees accountable. 

“It could be that they want to go for a bush walk. It could be that they want to do yoga. It could be that they just want to sit in a hammock and read a book, go for a walk with their dog, or run a marathon,” says McEwan. “Managers should be trying to help an employee have the time to achieve these personal goals.”

The first step is to establish a personalised program, he says, and not just throw more wellbeing offerings into the mix for all employees. 

“After a certain number of wellbeing initiatives, there’s a diminishing return. So it’s not just about providing these initiatives because they’re not always going to be taken up… Being able to choose your own adventure is really important,” says McEwan.

4. Model healthy behaviour

Unfortunately, there is still stigma attached to mental health issues and accessing support.

Seventy-five per cent of employers say stigma exists in their workplaces, according to McKinsey’s 2021 report. Within this group, many recognised their employees as being unwilling to share their health needs.

Leaders need to create a supportive environment that encourages individuals to talk about their mental health, take up opportunities to participate in wellbeing programs, and openly discuss this with their teams.

The value of leaders modelling healthy behaviours, and being ‘loud and proud’ about participating in wellbeing programs themselves, can encourage greater uptake among employees.

“Focus on engaging your leaders in the program, and then they will set those healthy behavioural expectations. Get leaders to talk about what their experience has been like [participating in a program] and what their health goals are,” says McEwan.

Setting these standards will help to trickle positive habits down the organisational hierarchy into middle management and their teams.

“If leaders are modelling healthy behaviours at work, that becomes a good lever to drive that behaviour for employees.”


There’s no point in having workplace wellbeing programs if your employees aren’t going to take part. Find out how you can best support employees with AHRI’s short course on Mental Health At Work.
Book in for the next course on 4 November.


guest
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Linda Wells
Linda Wells
10 days ago

I did a workplace training for a regional council a few years ago, 400 staff, it was mandatory and the feedback was brilliant. So much engagement across the sectors. Nowadays, it’s not mandatory and I feel like some staff put quotation marks around the word ‘wellbeing’ but we can all benefit.

More on HRM