Wellness programs can be a vital component of a positive, productive workplace. Whether you have a full HR department at your disposal or you’re running a smaller business, you can provide your staff with tools and resources that help them live healthier lives and become better, higher-performing employees.

So why are these programs a good investment for your business, and what should you do to get started? Here’s a primer on implementing wellness initiatives at your workplace.

Defining Wellness Programs

A wellness program can range from a set of classes and opportunities to get healthier all the way up to a comprehensive plan that’s integrated with your company’s health insurance. Whether the wellness plan is a stand-alone or integrated program, it can include weight-loss help, smoking-cessation classes, health screenings, exercise classes and even chronic disease management. More comprehensive, integrated plans might also include a 24/7 nurse line, online access to a doctor for diagnosis and prescriptions, or even incentives for getting healthier, such as reductions in your health care premiums if you meet certain goals.

The state of Nebraska offers an integrated health plan that includes year-round wellness programs. This means that employees can get lower premiums if they participate in the wellness plan, which involves completing a biometric screening, taking an online health assessment and enrolling in the program. Program offerings include a walking program to monitor steps online, a lifestyle management program for healthier eating and physical activity, a nutrition and weight management program, an online tool for logging cardio workouts and more.

The specific components you choose will depend on the interests and needs of your employees. For example, you could combine hands-on physical activity with classes about good exercise habits, so employees who may be reluctant to join the workout sessions can at least learn about the potential benefits. If they find out that exercise can help depression and improve their mood, they might be more inclined to join.

The Benefits

You may not realize it, but implementing an employee wellness program can save you money long-term. It’s not uncommon for companies to see a sizable return on investment from this initiative; in fact, savings can even be as high as $11 for every $1, as some studies have found. These savings occur primarily through decreased health care costs, improved employee productivity and fewer sick days taken per year.

A five- to 11-fold return on investment may seem extraordinary, but the fact of the matter is that poor employee health is extremely costly to businesses. A study found that employees who smoke cost their employer $5,800 extra per year compared to nonsmokers, and obesity and other chronic health conditions cost businesses $150 billion annually in lost productivity. In the face of such staggering figures, implementing a wellness program is a no-brainer.

How to Start Your Program

When you’re ready to get started, you can create your own suite of health classes from the ground up, partner with a business that offers comprehensive wellness plans or sign up with your insurance provider for a wellness program that’s integrated with your current plan. Typically, the best way to start is by talking to your insurance provider to get their input. They can let you know about programs they partner with that can automate incentives or options, or they may offer their own integrated plan that you can buy into.

Whether you’re just offering classes or a comprehensive wellness program integrated with your health insurance, you’ll want to survey your employees to find out which opportunities interest them the most. With anonymous surveys and health screenings, you can know if your focus should be on chronic disease management, exercise programs or smoking-cessation classes, for example.

Getting Your Workforce Engaged

Of course, it isn’t enough to create a program — you have to get your employees excited about it, too. Communicate the details of your plan, how it works and how each person can get involved. Stock your workplace with brochures, and send out a company-wide email explaining the new initiative.

Next, offer incentives to motivate participation. Talk to your health insurance provider to see if you can provide a premium reduction for employees who join the wellness program. Other incentives you can use include additional vacation days, gym membership reimbursements or gift cards. Short-term campaigns — a pedometer challenge, for example — can really build interest at first, but they’re not enough to keep momentum going. Instead, you need the leaders in your company to get involved and set an example. Then, promote a healthier lifestyle throughout the workplace, focusing both on physical and mental health. This can include flexible schedules and free time off for doctor’s appointments, for instance.

Before starting a program, consult an attorney to make sure you’re meeting all legal guidelines and regulations, and talk to your insurance broker or carrier for more insight into what kind of program will work best for your company’s size and budget.

Stephanie Dwilson has extensive experience providing expertise on topics including health, law and marketing. She’s a science journalist published by Fox News, a marketing expert and an attorney with expertise in personal injury law. She’s also a small business expert featured by Businessweek and Millionaire Blueprints magazine and has worked as a marketing consultant for ministries and as a PR lead for one of the largest churches in America.