As a health advocate at a large employer the last 10 years, I’ve seen the full range of employee reactions to workplace wellness programs.

From recalcitrant employees who hang up the phone when you say you’re a wellness coach, to gung-ho employees who exercise diligently and eat right while tracking every last step and calorie.

Making progress in the world of workplace wellness can be like boiling the ocean. But workplace health coaches are learning more about what works and what doesn’t – which is encouraging news for employers facing ever-rising health insurance costs.

My lens into the world of workplace wellness has been at Indiana’s largest healthcare provider, which over the past 16 years has built a wellness program that reaches across its 33,000-employee system.

By at least one measure, the program has been an unqualified success. IU Health has ranked on the “Healthiest 100 Workplaces in America” list the last four years running, even cracking the top 10 three times. The national recognition has been gratifying, and shows that the investments IU Health has made in employee wellness are paying off.

But fostering a high level of sustained employee wellness is a difficult proposition, resisting even the best efforts by the most committed employers to get a majority of their employees to exercise regularly, eat well, manage stress and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Changing behavior, I also like to say, can be like nailing Jello to a wall. Still, we’ve learned a few valuable lessons that employers big and small can use to help create a healthier workplace.

    • Highlight your wellness programs as part of new-employee orientation. Try to show employees from day one that you care about their well-being and offer programs to help.

     • Offer health screenings. They are a key to making employees aware of their health and health risks, and the need to intervene with a behavior change or treatment.

     • More is better when it comes to employee wellness offerings, like volunteer days or exercise challenges. Employees who do four or more programs see, on average, 25 percent fewer health claims, we’ve found.

     • People like incentives and taking part in games when it comes to wellness programs. So build in those worksite challenges and monetary payoffs for achieving targets. Employees react more favorably to incentives than being told in a “big brotherly” way that participation is mandatory.

     • Be data-driven. By measuring the impact of programs you quickly find out what works and improve the chances of gaining management buy-in.

At IU Health, we continue to experiment and adapt programs to keep our wellness approach fresh and engaging. Our wellness competitions have grown in scope and number in the last few years, to six systemwide competitions and more than 40 worksite challenges. The program and incentives also are open to employees who don’t use company insurance.

One last learning: Employee wellness is best viewed as a holistic affair. A robust wellness program should address the range of issues and lifestyles that impact health, from sleep patterns and depression awareness, to emotional health and work habits and more.

Keep everything relevant and engaging, and you’ve got a recipe for a healthier workplace.