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Employer Wellness Programs: Are They Worth the Money?

Vince Han

Weighing health vs. costs

As HR executives and wellness directors navigate the rapidly developing employer-sponsored wellness landscape, a common plea from C-level management is for more clarity around ROI (Return on Investment). For every dollar spent to support employee wellness, what will we get back, and when will we get it?

Many believe that the marketplace is too immature to deliver a clear ROI answer. Since wellness objectives still differ from company to company, a uniform measure of ROI is elusive. The ROI measure might be different for companies that aim to make employee wellness a key corporate value, driving employee retention and productivity, than for other companies that take an approach more strictly aimed at the balance sheet, directing any wellness invesstment to the reduction of healthcare costs.

While on this journey to understanding answers around ROI, wellness executives and vendors alike are spending their time and energy learning what types of tools and priorities seem to work. In other words, “How should we spend money?” and “What priorities deliver the results we think we want?”

Inevitably, finding solid answers requires trial and error. You may arrive at a place that you think is “there,” only to find that it is not. A good example of this type of false destination is the idea that generating short-term activity among employees can be the primary focus of a wellness program. Short-term activities might include hosting a 10-week walking competition or running a biggest loser contest. The success of these activities is commonly measured by how many employees participated (five percent of employees signed up) and to what extent they participated (we took 500,000 steps together, or we collectively lost 1,000 pounds).

This type of activity-based goal is common among companies with budding wellness initiatives. While it is admittedly easy to measure participation and completion rates in a walking contest, understanding the overall impact remains highly ambiguous. What percentage of participants can attribute the success of a sustained lifestyle change back to an employer sponsored walking contest? The numbers may be slim.

So how executives should be prioritizing wellness strategies? Here are three important principles to consider:

1) Focus on sustained behavior change.

The larger portion of employee wellness problems is a result of poor habits. Some claim that a habit can form in as little as 21 days, but the poorer the habit, the harder it is to change and keep it changed. Sustained behavior change should be measured in in years, not weeks or months. Relapse is arguably the most overlooked component of any wellness strategy.

A focus on influencing sustained behavior change means creating a strategy that contains a set of tools and resources to assist, motivate, educate and reward employees as they traverse the various stages on the path of permanent lifestyle change. Creating an overwhelming culture of health and wellness is the most powerful force in influencing employees. Achieving this culture may sound expensive, but it does not have to be. However, to be successful, it does require a commitment from the highest levels of management.

2) Acknowledge that the corporate environment contributes to unhealthy behaviors.

Our own data shows for employees who admit to struggling with unhealthy temptations, over 40 percent of these temptations occur during normal working hours. To some extent, employers act as accomplices when employees struggle with unhealthy temptations at work. A lack of healthy food options, exercise facilities or time, as well as stress and bad examples with powerful social influence are all possible contributors. A person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57 percent1 if someone close to them becomes obese.

Employers should proactively work toward counteracting the crucial moments of unhealthy temptations and routines. This should start with a thorough inventory of how corporate culture is aiding and abetting bad habits. What food is available in the facility? Is there a fitness center on campus or nearby? Are healthy behaviors understood and rewarded? Do we have a culture of “bringing in donuts” to celebrate employee birthdays or other celebratory occasions?

3) Learn to influence high-risk employees effectively.

It is a sensitive topic and a legal tightrope to target any employee based on physical attributes. However, it is no secret2 that high-risk employees simply cost you more. Tools like a Health Risk Assessment (HRA) help provide an innocuous platform to allow employees to self-identify that they are high-risk and to self-select resources such as health coaching, exercise programs, educational programs and so forth. Those who raise their hands to ask for help, present a grand opportunity to jump in to help high-risk employees.

Deploying resources to target high-risk employees also has a halo effect that will influence employees on the path to high-risk status so they begin necessary pre-emptive changes to their behavior.

Oftentimes, a high-risk employee who successfully makes a lifestyle change is also an ideal and willing candidate to be promoted as a success story for others to follow and emulate. When you see someone have a success, you build a belief that it can happen to you too.

As executives tackle building these overall wellness competencies, they will find a sweet spot for their wellness investment. In fact, do not be surprised in five years when the country’s most successful and profitable companies will share the attribute of having learned to make employee wellness an important value within their corporate culture. That is indeed healthy news for any shareholder.

1 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa066082

2 http://www.tcyh.org/employers/downloads/Extra_MayoCostOfHealth.pdf

About The Author

Coach Alba is an automated texting service that allows users to customize their long-term wellness goals and pinpoint crucial moments of temptation that could derail their plans. The service gets to know users with each text and sends reminders and suggestions to keep them on track. For more information visit www.coachalba.com.

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