Workplace Wellness on a Budget

Nathan Kolar
12 min readAug 30, 2020


It is through subtraction, which can be just as effective, appropriate, and accessible as addition, that workplace wellness can be fulfilled with the idea of being on a budget.

The following article is from the point of view of a workplace (in the group benefits field referred to as a plan sponsor). The direct cost references do not take into account labour costs.

Change isn’t always about adding, as in acquiring or increasing something, but rather, change can also be about subtracting something, as in eliminating or decreasing.

When Michelangelo created the Statue of David, he started with a rock, and then chiseled away at it. He created change by subtracting from the rock and deleting excess pieces of rock, so that beauty was shaped, the Statue of David itself.

Subtraction can come in handy in the field of workplace wellness and thinking about workplace wellness on a budget. Rather than the notion of addition in workplace wellness which goes something like “We give our employees X”, this article explores the notion of subtraction in workplace wellness, “we make it easier for our employees by doing/being X”, to achieve workplace wellness on a budget.

The three subtraction strategies this article shares to achieve workplace wellness on a budget go by the subtitles of: collect insight, clear the path, and the work itself. As an immediate overview, below are a few words for each subtitle, and then, each subtitle is elaborated on for the remainder of this article.

Collect insight — filter to what matters to fine-tune the focus
Clear the path — eliminate challenges and barriers (make healthy easy)
The work itself — decrease work-related stress

(Notice the subtraction themes in the words — filter, eliminate, and decrease)

Collect Insight

To begin, activities that can be classified in the workplace wellness category are expansive. Further to that, not every activity makes sense for every workplace. There is no one-size-fits all as each workplace is unique in terms of their demographics, preferences, culture, claims history, and capabilities. Common wisdom tells us that by doing everything we are doing nothing. We can do anything, but we can’t do everything.

Therefore, to subtract from the number of activities possible, narrowing the focus through collecting insight through data is helpful. The point of this narrowing of focus, as in filtering, is to create relevant workplace wellness strategies for the respective workplace. This is a best practice within workplace wellness in terms of using data to find what matters. The following are areas of obtaining data from:

  1. Insurer — for employees who make a medical claim, the insurer may be able to provide aggregate reporting into the nature of claims (such as the frequency and specific cost areas). From there, it is a matter of placing priority on the areas of highest frequency and most cost, in order to help as many employees as possible. If the workplace is not insured, and rather self-insured, this data may be available in-house, or through a third-party administrator (TPA).

Direct cost: $0-depends (may be included in your agreement for services or agent of record)
How: ask for a drug utilization report, provider services report, or a disability report

2. Employee [and Family] Assistance Program (EAP) — likewise to an existing insurer agreement possibly being able to provide data through reporting, an EAP provider could be able to provide aggregate reporting of their own. In addition, the EAP provider may also provide complementary education sessions or assistance with campaigns in your workplace.

Direct cost: $0-depends (may be included in your agreement for services or agent of record)
How: ask for what type of aggregate reporting is available

3. Internal Data Audit — there may be data presently available within the workplace for you to leverage. Even engagement/satisfaction data is useful, along with absenteeism data — especially when tracked by type of absence, length of absence, frequency of absence, and team/department absence. Also useful, is knowing the demographic data of your employee population, such as the age cohorts. What can be useful is a wellness interest survey to learn employee needs and wants pertaining to wellness. Knowing what employees value the most can best direct workplaces towards creating effective and engaging wellness programs.

Direct cost: $0-depends (may be included in your agreement for services or agent of record)
How: collect internal data on engagement/satisfaction, absenteeism, and demographics. Newly conduct a Wellness Interest Survey (check out these examples from Wellable and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety — CCOHS)

4. Internal Resources Audit — rather than looking at wellness like a stand-alone silo, best practices are to integrate wellness within existing efforts of the workplace so that wellness becomes synonymous with “that is just how we do things around here.” To get specific, it may already be that the workplace has a licence for a webinar platform — opening the opportunity for education sessions through a webinar format, or it may be that the workplace has graphic designers who can help create fillable PDF’s as interactive wellness resources for employees.

Direct cost: $0
How: further the aforementioned granular point, include wellness-related information within the options of an workplace-wide newsletter, intranet, blog, all-employee (town hall) meetings.

5. Wellness Committee — sometimes referred to as Wellness Champions, a Wellness Committee can provide detailed and candid feedback for what can work best wellness-wise for the workplace. For achieving impact, trying to include one volunteer from every part of the business is an asset, along with volunteers with different skill sets (finance, marketing, building maintenance, diversity and inclusion, information technology (IT), and management/leadership). Obtaining employee feedback through a Wellness Committee, and along with the previously mentioned wellness interest survey, can be classified as a best practice in program planning and change management, referred to as participatory planning.

Direct cost: $0
How: organize a Wellness Committee to obtain insight and utilize for support to communicate and implement wellness activities

Overall, the collect insight strategy is about answering, who are your people?

  • Know your aggregate numbers (note the main causes of medical claims, absence, and dissatisfaction)
  • Find out what your employees value
  • Uncover existing capabilities of the workplace

= making wellness activities that are much more efficient and effective, and establishing offerings which employees actually use

Clear The Path

The next strategy for the means of subtraction in workplace wellness for workplace wellness on a budget is to clear the path, which refers to, making the healthy choice the easy choice. Not every minute of every day for every person is suitable for engaging in a wellness activity, but ultimately, the goal is to have options for wellness activities available, realistic during working hours, available during off-work hours, and with minimal barrier to entry. Think, clearing the path for appropriate and timely wellness activities.

The methods to follow help do exactly that:

6. Managers — leaders may set the tone, but managers set the permission, Laura Putnam writes in Workplace Wellness That Works. Managers act as a form of communication and allowance for wellness activities that are available.

Direct cost: $0
How: have managers to mention wellness-related matters in team meetings/huddles, ensure managers allow employees to engage with wellness activities during working hours, or train managers on the principles of emotional intelligence.

7. Hub — for employees who desire to practice wellness habits, it can be overwhelming to learn from the vast amounts of information online. In order to help prevent false positives and unnecessary medical procedures, thus increasing consumer literacy as wellness, clear the path by acting as a Hub to collect existing health information but in an appropriate spot for employees to find it is a value.

Direct cost: $0
How: on an intranet, or company webpage, share links to reliable health information websites which employees can browse in times of need and interest. This is a piece of an antidote for searching symptoms on Google which may lead to unreliable website sources and the phenomenon of confirmation bias. Examples of reliable websites to share the links with employees are HealthLink BC, Mayo Clinic, and MedlinePlus.

8. Community — as highlighted in the Harvard Culture of Health, one of the four pillars is Community Health, being described as boosting the health of local communities in which they operate. This means considering how to raise the standards of health in the local community and how the workplace can help to make that happen. Doing so can provide a jolt of purpose for employees — being a part of something bigger than themselves. Community health can be made easier when integrated with corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. A sense of community and giving back helps employees to do their best work.

Direct cost: $0
How: Begin an employee volunteering campaign, take advantage of offerings from local non-profit organizations, or give back to the local community by donating lightly used office supplies such as chairs and desks.

8. Diversity and Inclusion — an underlying message of this article so far is that the definition of workplace wellness is not confined to a technology platform provided for employees. Workplace wellness can also mean interactions amongst employees and levels or support — encompassing diversity and inclusion. A holistic view of workplace wellness can take into account diversity and inclusion as a component of social wellness. Diversity and inclusion takes into account a healthy workplace culture whereby the importance of recognizing bias and blind spots is recognized for continual improvement.

Direct cost: $0
How: host activities whereby employees from different business units of locations can learn about each other, train employees on appropriate mannerisms and interactions for the workplace, have employees create a User Manual to Me

9. Physical Environment — it may very well be that the building you work in could be making you sick (indoor air pollutants, lack of ventilation, [, coining the term sick building syndrome. Further to disease avoidance which a healthy building is a solution for, the other half of the coin a healthy building can satisfy is health promotion, which can be done through active design (safe and engaging stairwells, ergonomic-friendly equipment). We cannot expect people to adopt health habits when the work environment reinforces or even causes poor habits.

Direct cost: $0 — it depends (removing obstructions in front of windows, marking a walking path outside, having a water cooler in the lunchroom, dusting the office area)
How: Implementing action items from a healthy building certification and rating-system, the market presence currently consists of WELL, Fitwel, and RESET.

10. Peer Support — peer support programs, specifically workplace peer support are programs where employees with lived experience are selected and prepared to provide peer support to other employees within their workplace. Specifically, peer support itself means the process by which like-minded individuals with similar experiences — who have travelled or are travelling the road — encourage and assist each other to continue the healing. More often than not, workplace peer support can focus on mental health problems and illnesses, such that the support is provided for peers, by peers. The Mental Health Commission of Canada developed both a business case and implementation document for peer support.

Direct cost: $0
How: Training employees with lived-experience or a desire to support others as those who are able to offer peer support to fellow employees.

11. Technology — the use of a technology platform can come into play for the asset of scaling workplace wellness activities for large workplaces, and workplaces of multiple locations. Directing employees to a single and centralized technology platform may also increase understanding of access to wellness activities. Common themes across technology platforms within the corporate wellness space include themes of employee challenges, forms of health coaching, building healthy habits, self-assessments for holistic health risk (activity levels, dietary patterns, mood, financial status, social support, etc.), and curated health information.

Direct cost: Do not recommend in initial stages of wellness journey, cost depends on vendor with most common pricing model being per eligible/employee per month (PEPM).
How: Send inquiries to technology platforms in the workplace wellness space, such as Virgin Pulse, Sprout, Optimity, CoreHealth, and BestLifeRewarded Innovations. A vital question in the best interest of a workplace is to ask vendors what happens after say 6 months. It’s inevitable that humans lose interest in any sort of technology platform. That said, what can the vendor do to maintain interest for employees and prevent a drop in employee interest after 6 months.

12. Return to Work — a conscious approach to the return to work process for sick/injured employees can help ensure that additional time away from work does not occur. Even so, an employee who is at work following a sick/injured leave but who is not engaged or productive can be a determinant to the workplace and bring rise to presenteeism. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH’s) Workplace Mental Health Playbook for Business Leaders illustrates best practices for return to work.

Direct cost: $0 (depending on current disability management practices)
How: touch base with the disability management process to determine areas where wellness can fit in. This will include matters for short-term and long-term disability, as well as the possibility for various lines of life insurance, and critical illness insurance. From there, assessments for fitness-to-work and functional ability may also benefit from wellness integration.

All in all, this second strategy, clear the path, takes into account realistic wellness activities for the workplace and mitigating the possibility of barriers as rising in the future for employee participation and engagement in wellness.

= not getting caught up in the idea that wellness activities have to be bought and offered through a smartphone. Looking at workplace wellness as opportunity-building, versus telling employees to learn more and more knowledge and skills.

The Work Itself

The kryptonite of workplace wellness is work-related stress. Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer makes the case in Dying for a Paycheck that the way we work isn’t working. Dr. Pfeffer explains “even simply management decisions can create a toxic workplace end-result in employee stress. The problem is that workplaces seldom consider the workplace itself and what occurs there as important causal factors affecting individual behavior. There are more deaths coming from poor, unhealthful, stressful workplace conditions than the number of deaths resulting from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, influenza, or kidney disease, and about as many deaths as were reported in 2010 from both accidents and strokes.”

At the same time. It is vital to disclosure the positioning of workplaces, which is to:

- At a minimum should do no harm to worker health

- All about supporting workers on doing good work

- An employee mental health focus is not about assessing an employees mental health (nor is it intended to focus on any individual employee). It is about considering the impact of workplace processes, policies, and interactions on the psychological health and safety of all workers

- While there are many factors external to the workplace that can impact psychological health and safety, it is about addressing those psychological health and safety aspects within the control, responsibility, or influence of the workplace that can have an impact within, or on, the workforce

- Consider psychological health and safety as an integral part of all operations from hiring to training and from managing performance to managing change [integrate into the everyday — not a one-time event]

Al Lewis writes in Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, “the goal is to be the most productive workplace, not the healthiest. Being the healthiest increases productivity, other things close to equal, but other things still have to be close to equal: you wouldn’t fill a company with triathletes just to keep your health spending down, would you, if other people were better at their jobs?” The goal is to embrace management practices which produce both well-being and high performance.

To share how work can be made healthy, considerations include starting with an assessment, such as Guarding Minds at Work, StressAssess, adopting standards such as the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the UK (their work-related stress webpage shares a number of tools).

All in all, as the Healthy Work Campaign suggests, employees, as people need,

  • to perceive their skills are being used on the job
  • to have a say in how their job is done
  • reasonable & fair work demands
  • to be treated with respect and not as objects
  • their interests & needs taken into account in decision-making

= healthy personal behaviours come from healthy workplaces. This about reverse engineering this statement: the biggest cause of chronic illness is stress, and the biggest cause of stress is work

To recap, this article shared three subtraction strategies to achieve workplace wellness on a budget. The three strategies went by the subtitles of collect insight, clear the path, and the work itself. Remember, defining what workplace wellness means to a workplace is the first place is the start. For a workplace, effective, yet also being budget-friendly, wellness can be about the way the workplace acts or operates, versus leading with the product or latest technology platform running through the workplace wellness market in a given year. In workplace wellness, we cannot lead with the commodity of a technology platform. It is on the workplace to use data to narrow down to what matters, avoid positioning themselves as “fixers”, and uphold healthy and safe working conditions.


Nathan Kolar



Nathan Kolar

Nathan helps companies become more productive while simultaneously being humane. #employeehealth #organizationalhealth LinkedIn: