Employee wellness programs often focus on fitness challenges and weight-loss competitions to motivate employees to achieve greater health. Mobile-app-integration makes these programs very accessible and easy for employees to participate in.

Participation rates are for employee wellness programs are respectable, ranging from 20 percent to 70 percent, depending on the configuration of the program and whether participation incentives or nonparticipation penalties are incorporated.

But programs that focus on diet and fitness culture miss the mark for employees managing chronic illnesses. They are focused on managing symptoms and finding a pathway to return to health rather than increasing wellness.

How can employers engage and support their employees who are experiencing health concerns? It’s a question that touches on a lot of themes, from privacy to productivity, to fairness and effectiveness.

Here are a few key guidelines for employers to consider.

Overcoming privacy concerns

Chronic illness sufferers are rightly concerned about an employer knowing details of their illness and symptoms. According to the National Institutes of Health, privacy concerns are among the top reasons people cite for not participating in a wellness program.

To create a trusting culture, employers do best to take a compassionate approach to employees dealing with illness. Strike the right balance between the needs of the business and respect for the needs of the employee. Make reasonable accommodations that keep the employee productive and engaged without an appearance of special treatment. Perhaps a more accommodating job description is possible.

Also, make assurances that all symptom disclosures will remain confidential as employees are wary of being stigmatized with their colleagues.Understand that retaining an employer-sponsored health plan may be more important to them than other employees.

When an employee who is dealing with a chronic illness feels supported every day when they show up to work, they will be more likely to learn about and consider participating in employee wellness programs.

Make sure your disability leave and sick day provisions are fair and clear

Employees with chronic illnesses need to know exactly how much sick time they have accrued, at what rate it accrues, and what the protocol is for alerting employers they are taking sick time.

Having sick time available when symptoms flare is a comfort that lowers an employees’ general anxiety about unpredictable illnesses. Companies that offer short-term and long-term disability plans add another layer of insurance for sufferers to know there are provisions if they have a particularly acute problem.

Having clear, defined policies on sick and disability time is a basic step that goes a long way in supporting employees with chronic illnesses.

Wellness time

Make sure your wellness programs are not just about diet and exercise but also mindfulness. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other mindfulness disciplines can be offered during the work day and are more likely to attract people dealing with chronic illnesses who don’t resonate with the idea of a fitness challenge.

Taking the time to meditate and relax in the middle of the workday sets the stage for a productive afternoon for employees at all levels of health.

Be proactive

It’s a good assumption that employees will be reluctant to share the nature of their health struggles and their symptoms with their employers. So if an employee shows signs of reduced productivity or takes an extended leave, a proactive inquiry from the employer may help all involved.

In an atmosphere of trust, an employer’s earnest effort to understand the illness, offer support, and make accommodations will most likely be met with relief. And the employee will be more open to wellness program participation in the future and co-creating a plan to manage symptoms while at work.

When employees can share their health issues with employers without fear, companies gain a clearer picture of their workforce and how to improve their health and productivity.

Share resources

There are emerging tools available to help those with chronic conditions manage their health. Get to know these resources and be prepared to share them with employees who would benefit from them.

Some exciting tools available are:

  • Livongo – An internet-connected blood sugar meter for diabetes patients that includes personalized insights, context, and coaching support.
  • Healthcare Bluebook – A price transparency tool that follows the template of the popular automotive bluebook. It gives users a clear expectation the cost of procedures specific to their location. This tool has the potential to decrease employer health care costs by helping employees become more informed health care consumers.
  • Trainer RX – An app for injury rehab providers that allows patients to track recovery through customized pathways based on their specific injuries. The app allows patients and providers to both see a patient’s goals, achievement, and rewards.
  • Change Healthcare – A transparency tool for consumers that also helps insurers and providers with administrative efficiencies, patient eligibility verification, and claims and payment tracking.
  • Healthsparq – A consumer-oriented solution that works with health insurers and providers to make the health-care shopping experience similar to that of shopping for traditional consumer goods – instead of what it currently is like.
  • Cohero – A medication tracker and notification solution optimized for respiratory health. Cohero offers mobile hardware and software to detect how open an asthma patient’s lungs are and tracks that data over time.
  • Redbrick Health – A multi-faceted software company that works employers, health plan providers, and hospitals to engage healthcare consumers and inspire behavioral changes.
  • Evive Health – A consumer-facing platform that merges medical and demographic data with consumer behavior insights into personalized tools that guide healthy actions.


Companies will gain productivity and worker satisfaction not only through wellness programs aimed at employees motivated by fitness challenges but also through supporting employees looking to remain productive in the face of chronic illness.

WiserTogether’s Return to Health platform can help employees gain greater insight and control in the care planning process. Learn more about this powerful solution here.

Let us know what you think.

Thank you,

Max Kahn