Employee Wellness Surveys: Do’s & Don’ts

When’s the last time you asked your employees what they want from their wellness program? When I ask this question to employers, I typically get blank stares. Most people hear how important it is to survey employees on their wellness needs and interests but not many employers take the time to do so.

Successful wellness programs consistently get feedback from employees. All too often, we get tunnel vision and forget our end customer, the employee. Employee surveys are so important because you can learn about:

  • key employee barriers
  • health interests
  • evaluation of current offerings
  • perception of the culture and conduciveness to health
  • effectiveness of communication channels within your company
  • if leadership will support the need for a survey

If you google “employee wellness survey” you’ll get a ton of sample surveys. None of them have blown my socks off so I’ve created my own. I’ve given many surveys over my years of practice, so here are my do’s and don’ts of giving employee surveys.


The first question I typically get is what participation rate they should expect. The answer is that it depends. I’ve seen as low as a 25% participation rate (with an incentive, an extended deadline and a series of communications) and a high of 81% (with no incentive, an energetic HR rep and strong leadership support). The difference was that the employer with 81% made it their mission to get a high percentage of participation. The other employer wasn’t as committed.

The higher participation is typically better but the key is discovering if all areas of the company are represented. I worked with a company that consistently had a hard time reaching two departments. When they sent out the survey, guess who didn’t complete it? Bingo….those same two departments.

You can’t apply the results to the people and departments that didn’t participate. Seems like a no-brainer but many people will make generalizations to the whole company.

Give work time to take the survey. This works more for hourly than salary workers. You shouldn’t expect employees to use their personal time to take a company survey.

Office workers on salary have a never ending pile of work on their plate they will deem way more important than your survey. Typically having an executive or their direct supervisor relay the message will work better than a plea from HR.

Offer ways to take the survey for those employees who don’t have computers. This is more prevalent than you think. If employees have smart phones, you can add QR codes on posters you hang around the buildings that link directly to the survey.

Be careful with incentives. I’m all for making it a lottery option to win a small prize (like $25 or less) for taking the survey but you’ll have to use an optional identifier for those that want to be entered in the drawing. This takes away the true anonymity of the survey but as long as you make it optional, those that don’t want to share don’t have to.


One of the best ways to get employees to take your survey is to communicate why it’s important and better yet, what you are going to do with the results. There’s nothing worse than taking a survey for your employer and thinking the results will end up in a black hole.

If your organization has a top down approach, I recommend a top executive send out the initial communication. I’ve heard many people dismiss corporate emails from HR but if it comes from someone they aren’t used to hearing from, like the VP, SVP or CEO, they’re more likely to at least open the email.

Have a defined timeframe for the survey. If you leave it open ended, there will never be a sense of urgency to take it. Two to three weeks should be sufficient.

Schedule wisely. If you have other company initiatives or surveys at the other time, employees will get confused and will ultimately tune you out.

The actual survey

Now that you have a plan, think about the actual survey.

Make it short. I’ve seen people start piling on questions just because they were curious and not really because they were going to do anything with the information. Make it less than 10 minutes and test it to be sure.

Make the first questions EASY. As I said earlier, some of the employee wellness surveys you can google aren’t ideal. The first question is usually LONG and has a laundry list of health topics for employees to check off for interest. If I open a survey and the responses seem overwhelming, I’m more likely to close it right back up and say I’ll take it later (but I’ll never get to it).

I can also save you some effort. Most employees don’t want to hear about their chronic condition (diabetes, hypertension and asthma), how their health insurance works or tobacco cessation. Yes, these are all important health topics but I’ve never seen employees beat down my door to attend a lunch and learn on diabetes management.

Avoid asking if they’ve participated in every little program you’ve offered. It’s exhausting for the employee and really, shouldn’t you know how many participated?

Allow open ended responses. Although it’s time consuming to review the answers, it’s where you’ll get some rich information. Save these (optional) questions for the end of the survey so they are already committed to taking the survey.

Don’t ask things you aren’t willing to implement. For example, don’t ask employees if they are interested in incentives, like paid time off, if you aren’t willing to offer it.

Don’t ask them what times they want things to be offered. I’ve seen and done this and although people say they’ll show up, they never do. It’s better to experiment with times to see who actually shows up.

Ask questions about the perception of the culture and how supportive management is of wellness activities. This scares some employers because they don’t really want to know the answer. This information is especially helpful when you compare the answers year over year.

Break out responses by department. This is especially important for large departments. If you have departments with just a few people, then you can collapse them together so you can’t identify people’s responses.


The biggest miss I see with a wellness survey is employers forget to communicate the results to employees. It can be as simple as communicating the top three things you learned and what you’re going to do about it. If you are asking employees to take their time to take the survey, certainly you can take 30 minutes to pull a communication together.

Keep in mind that a survey only works if you have trust with your employees. None of this advice will result in high participation if your employees are mistrustful of their company or management.

Since an employee wellness survey takes place 2 weeks out of the year, there should always be a way for employees to give feedback the other 50 weeks of the year.