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Eleven years ago, Benjamin Prinzing was a young operations manager with an age-old problem. His employer was struggling to attract and retain top talent in a competitive marketplace—as a small business in Roseburg, Ore., the company just couldn't afford to compete with the salaries offered by their larger competitors. Prinzing needed a new tactic, so he turned to the one thing he knew he could control: culture.

He decided to experiment with a basic workplace wellness program to differentiate the company, and soon saw the impact he had hoped for. "We wanted to be the place you refer your family and friends," says Prinzing. "And we ended up getting a higher tier of talent because it was just a fun place to work. "

Prinzing quickly came to view workplace wellness as more than just another perk, however. After the premature death of a former coworker and friend due to heart failure, he realized wellness programs could truly improve employee health. He founded Kadalyst to help more organizations launch wellness initiatives (and potentially save lives).

We sat down with Prinzing to discuss what he's learned since founding Kadalyst nearly eight years ago — long before "workplace wellness" was a buzzword. Here, he shares his best advice for starting a program, ensuring employees are engaged and defining success along the way.

Take Stock of Where You Stand

Before jumping into a new program, Prizing recommends surveying the benefits you already offer. Organizations are often farther along than they think when it comes to wellness, he explains, pointing to a recent client in Portland as an example: "They've got the healthy food in the cafeteria. They've got the indoor basketball courts. They've got a gym. But they don't consider themselves having a wellness program."

While building upon existing offerings is easier than starting from scratch, it may also help your engagement rates. The national average for participation in wellness programs is less than 20 percent, but if you build your wellness efforts based on which benefits employees use and which they ignore (i.e., the basketball courts are packed, but the gym is empty), you'll likely see a higher participation rate.

Build an Internal Committee

Whether you are starting from ground zero or building upon existing initiatives, it's important to gather input from across the company. When starting with a new client, Prinzing sets up a "wellness" committee to discuss the goals of the program, brainstorm initiatives and build out a timeline for execution.

Who makes up this committee? Prinzing recommends a few key players: an executive for C-suite buy-in, an HR or benefits manager who will actually run the program, a few employees, and a remote worker (if applicable) to make sure telecommuters aren't neglected. He also encourages companies to involve any "naysayers" on the committee — people who don't support workplace wellness — in order to understand and address their hesitations about investing or participating in a program.

Remember Your Target Audience

A diverse committee is important as there is no one-size-fits-all wellness program, Prinzing says. "The program has to feel like it's grassroots and not some out-of-the-box or off-the-shelf program," he adds. "It's got to feel like it's coming from within."

Prinzing has had several clients that launched well-intentioned but poorly designed wellness initiatives, simply because they didn't consider the unique needs of employees. For example, one international company purchased Fitbits for employees, without realizing that the corresponding app didn't translate into many of their employees' first languages.

"Don't go after the shiny new object just because it looks cool and it seems trendy," he says. "What works for your organization doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work for someone else's, and vice versa."

Define Success

The final key to a successful wellness program is defining what success looks like from the beginning. "Every company comes at wellness in a different regard," says Prinzing. "But at the end of the day, the CFO and the owners of the company still want a return on their investment."

Prinzing offers two main ways to decrease cost: first, improved employee education on how to utilize their benefits. "When people rush off to the ER if they have a sore throat, that's a huge red flag," he says. "That was absolutely preventable, but the person didn't know there were other options for them." The second option, he says, is to actually make sure your employees are getting healthier — which comes back to designing a program specific to the needs, schedules and interests of your target audience.

"Every day, we focus on how we can help companies reshape their culture in a way that not only endorses a healthy lifestyle, but also actually improves the overall health of the organization," says Prinzing. "We need 80-90 percent of the group engaged in these different aspects of wellness, not just 19."

Photo: Creative Commons