Sick employees, especially those dealing with chronic conditions, can sap the productivity out of a small business, costing it a ton of money. One way to combat that is to incorporate a health and wellness program.

“In a small business if someone is absent you are going to notice it,” says Cristen Benz, West Region Health Improvement Lead for Cigna’s Select Segment. “If someone comes to work feeling tired, sick or sad it slows productivity and hurts revenue.”

A recent survey by Cigna Individual and Family Plans found small business owners and the self-employed are putting their businesses before their health. According the survey, of 250 self-employed Americans, close to 25% said they don’t have health insurance. What’s more, 60% of survey respondents put their business priorities ahead of personal health and wellness, even though more than one-third said that one month away from work because of a personal illness would result in lost customers or the company going under.

Studies have shown health and wellness programs can reduce absenteeism among employees, but many small business owners are reluctant to launch one because of costs. The cost of an unhealthy workforce, however, is going to be much more than having a health and wellness program, says Benz. 

“Every company has a burden of illness and will continue to pay for that burden of illness,” she says. Instead of doing nothing, Benz says small businesses should look at the health and wellness program as an investment in human capital.

“It will make the employees more productive, happier and help with retention,” she says.

There are a host of free health-and-wellness program options, according to Benz. She says local governments offer free resources, as do some insurers like Cigna.

So how should a small business go about creating a successful health and wellness program?

According to Benz, the most important ingredient is the leadership. The company brass must be on board and leading by example. Small businesses that, unlike large companies, don’t have the resources to give away a $500 reward if an employee undergoes a biometric screening can demonstrate the program results by having the boss walk the walk. For instance, if the  head of the company is a smoker and because of a smoking cessation program offered by the company he no longer smokes -- that can be powerful motivation for other employees at the company.

Leading by example goes beyond executives embracing the wellness program, but also has to do with creating a culture of wellness, says Benz. For instance, the company can institute a no-smoking policy, stock the vending machine with bottled water and healthy snacks and encourage employees to park farther away so they walk more. If the environment promotes healthy living, then employees are more likely to make healthy choices. If the vending machines are stocked with sugary drinks, chips and candy -- then that’s what employees are apt to eat.

Sharing information is also key when it comes to creating a sustainable and successful health and wellness program. According to Benz, the employer doesn’t want to waste money launching programs that the employees won’t participate in. Incentives also work and don’t have to cost a fortune. For instance, instead of giving cash rewards to employees who quit smoking, after a smoking cessation program the small business owner can give them the day off or let them leave early every Friday for a month.

“A culture of health changes behavior, it makes people healthier and improves revenue,” says Benz.