Benefits and challenges of dependent participation in wellness programs

When implementing wellness programs, HR professionals have many options. From program topics to eligibility, the choice is dependent on your company’s culture and health goals. Many companies limit their wellness programs to employees, but research shows there’s a significant cost savings when programs are opened to dependents. Although it does have its challenges, dependent participation can increase both health care savings and overall employee motivation.


Healthier dependents also mean healthier and happier employees. Health studies show that employees who partner with others in a healthy lifestyle will more likely continue their healthy behavior longer. Since employees won’t have their coworkers to motivate them after working hours, family participating in the same workout or nutrition plan will give these employees the continued motivation they need. Furthermore, employees with healthier family members will use less sick leave to take care of a sick dependent.


Including dependents in your program isn’t without its challenges. Employers will need to extend the hours and days of scheduled activities and screenings in order to accommodate dependents. That can mean greater costs for larger employers, in particular. Communication may also become an issue. Employers are often unable to communicate with dependents directly, and will therefore need to rely on the employee as a middleman to deliver information. Another challenge is keeping dependents engaged. Most employers will have some idea about motivating their own staff, but what motivates their family members may be completely different. Employers will need to learn what activities will get and maintain participation, and what incentives are most effective for the group.

Tips to minimize your challenges

If your company is ready to incorporate dependent participation in your wellness program, it’s important to publicize and encourage family participation. Conduct campaigns on the importance of family health, whether it includes spouses or the entire family. This will help you get the message across to your employees.

Remember that dependents’ interests will vary depending on age and relationship to the employee. Cater your activities and programs to your specific demographics. For example, young couples will have different expectations and goals versus a family of four.

The tips below will help HR professionals gain greater participation, while mitigating the challenges:

Conduct a family health risk assessment and interest survey – Include questions for the entire family. Through these types of assessments and surveys, many companies, like IBM, have been able to successfully implement childhood nutrition programs.

Set family goals – A great way to encourage family participation is to set achievable, yet challenging family goals. Be sure to offer incentives in order to encourage participation.

Communicate often and directly to dependents – Encourage dependents to share their email addresses. Be sure to let them know that their email address will only be used to notify them of wellness program events and activities.

Offer multiple program options – Offer multiple program modalities (i.e. stress management classes offered both online or in a classroom setting) to appeal to a greater range of dependents and their schedules.

Offer incentives directed to dependents and their schedules – Incentives are great tools for encouraging behavior. Offer your dependents incentives that are appropriate to the goal they’re meant to encourage, and directed towards their interests.

The bottom line

Dependent participation in a wellness program offers both benefits and challenges. Research shows that when implemented correctly, dependent participation can reduce employers’ health costs and offer greater motivation to their staff. Employers who focus on family goals, dependent interests and incentives, and communication will greatly increase their chances of a successful wellness program.

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