Workplace wellness efforts can seem like a daunting task, especially for Iowa’s small employers. Considering that 97 percent of Iowa’s businesses employ fewer than 500 employees and 95 percent employ fewer than 50, small businesses account for the vast majority of Iowa’s workforce. For these employers, it seems like the resources, time and capacity are never quite enough to make a wellness program happen. Of course large companies can implement successful wellness programs, but what about the other 97 percent?

Craig Hanken, executive director of the Wellness Council of Iowa, offers advice to businesses that want to get started. His encouragement is simple and doesn’t require expensive equipment or plans: “Before beginning any effort, two things are required, communication and creating a culture of support.” 

Hanken believes employees are your best asset and need to be committed to your business objectives. Before starting a wellness plan, employees should be invested in the company’s future and willing to support the plan implemented by the “boss.” The culture in the organization should foster a desire to build the company, and a wellness plan should be framed in those terms.

Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of Johnson Machine Works (JMW) in Chariton, is a great example of what a rural small business can do. JMW employs approximately 100 individuals and has a voluntary three-part program focused on spiritual, financial and physical wellness.  

To address spiritual wellness, the company works with Marketplace Chaplains, a non-denominational chaplaincy available to assist with the personal and emotional struggles of daily and family life.  This service is extended to employees, customers and suppliers.  

Financially, employees are paid to attend Dave Ramsey’s financial workshops to help them get a firm handle on their personal finances and to help remove those struggles from their relationships with their families.  

Finally, JMW utilizes biometric screenings and online assessments among other items to determine health goals. Dietitians and health coaches also are available to assist employees to lose weight, access tobacco cessation programs or to improve their fitness to reach a goal of a triathlon or 10K race.  

This three-pronged effort is a holistic approach to wellness that values and improves the employee, boosting morale and the bottom line. Various programs similar to what JMW has implemented are available for all businesses regardless of their size or culture.

Another example of a “wellness culture” has been implemented at Des Moines University (DMU). Wellness has been the center of this medical school for decades, and recently, wellness was added as one of the university’s five core values. The WELLNE$$ PAY$ program is an innovative way for DMU to motivate employees to improve their health. The program uses a menu of “goals,” and employees are compensated for completing areas such as $20 for a wellness screening or $10 for maintaining a healthy weight. All these incentives addup to the possibility of earning up to $385 and a chance to receive a $2,000 grand prize. In 2013, DMU saw strong results, with 236 employees out of approximately 300 employees participating and paying out $37,330. Most employees who participated saw a positive improvement in their health on top of the financial benefit. 

A WELLNE$$ PAY$ type of incentive program could be perfectly tailored to any size business or budget.

Even though beginning a wellness program can be overwhelming for a small business, there are small steps you can take to get started. As a business owner, be creative in the ways you support employees as they work with you to improve their overall health. Don’t discount implementing a program because it seems too hard to get going. 

Your employees will respect you for being engaged in their health and grateful for your effort and support.


Helen Eddy is the executive director of the Healthiest State Initiative and is the assistant vice president of health and wellness at Hy-Vee Inc.