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Health Culture at Work Promotes Loyalty and Drives Savings

Beena Thomas, Laura Karkula

Wellness programs promote loyalty, so your employee doesn't need to make a leap of faith.

Health Culture at Work Promotes Loyalty and Drives Savings

An increasing number of companies are implementing wellness programs in an effort to help employees adopt healthy behaviors, increase productivity and tame medical costs and improve loyalty.

But these programs are often rolled out with little understanding of employees’ attitudes about health in the workplace – their expectations, motivations and concerns.

Before developing a wellness initiative, or tweaking an existing program, employers should ask themselves a more fundamental question:  “Does our workplace really support a culture of health?”

This question goes far deeper than deciding whether or not to offer incentives for workers to join the local health club. Companies with a culture of health have an environment that supports healthy behaviors. That support may take a variety of forms: providing an onsite workout facility, offering incentives to lose weight or quit smoking, promoting the use of stairs over elevators, encouraging parking further away from the office, supplying healthy food alternatives in vending machines and cafeterias, and implementing compassionate sick-leave policies.

Beyond that, key ingredients of a culture of health include: buy-in and support from senior management, continually making workers aware of available programs, and strongly encouraging participation.

To get a better appreciation of employees’ views of their companies’ culture of health, OptumHealth and GfK/Roper surveyed over 1,400 employees, split evenly between white collar and blue collar occupations, at both large and small businesses. A large majority of respondents had been with their employers for several years. Respondents’ demographics covered a wide range of ages, races, education and income levels.

Employees affirm wellness benefits. Among the key findings was that employees recognize distinct differences between organizations that have a culture of health and those that do not.

Health-focused companies not only tend to have healthier workers and fewer absences due to illness, they also derive important intangible benefits. Workers at these firms feel they have a valued partner in addressing their health concerns, which in turn influences how they feel about their jobs. For example:

  • Close to nine in ten employees believe it is appropriate for employers to encourage workers to take steps to be healthy.
  • More than eight in ten employees believe that workplace health and wellness programs show that an employer really cares about their employees.
  • Over eighty percent of employees who worked at companies with health and wellness programs said such programs would encourage them to stay longer with their employer.
  • Nearly three-quarters of employees feel that the availability of a gym or exercise program at work would increase productivity.

The environment at a company and the degree to which it promotes a culture of health is just as important to workers as the actual health-related programs themselves. For example, those who worked in organizations emphasizing health felt that they had more control over maintaining a healthy lifestyle at work than those who did not (92 percent versus 79 percent).

Of course, tangible results matter too. Six in ten people surveyed — those who had successfully lost weight or quit smoking — reported that a workplace program was very helpful to their success. Compared with employees at firms that don’t stress a culture of health, higher percentages of workers at health-conscious employers view weight loss programs, wellness coaching, and health fairs as useful.

One company’s positive experience. A large financial services provider with a deeply embedded culture of health achieved a solid return on investment from its wellness and disease prevention initiative through a combination of health behavior improvements, productivity increases, and lower health care costs.

In designing and implementing its program, the company followed established best practices: securing visible leadership loyalty, assessing the employee population, tailoring offerings to its employees, focusing on specific health behavior change, and rigorously tracking results.

Key aspects of the program included:

  • A comprehensive communications strategy for building member awareness and enrollment, delivered through a combination of outreach and follow-up, promotional campaigns, and an extensive employer toolkit.
  • Cash participation incentives to change behavior and drive loyalty.
  • Use of five separate data streams—online health assessments, onsite biometric screenings, medical insurance claims analysis, employee self-identification and program referrals—to identify at-risk members for proactive engagement and coaching.
  • Wellness coaches, cross-trained in exercise, stress, tobacco cessation, weight management, nutrition and heart health counseling, who work closely with employees to achieve lifestyle improvement and behavior change.

Now, three years into the program, the company continually promotes wellness to all its employees as part of its ongoing culture of health.

Overcoming obstacles to wellness.  For companies seeking to develop a culture of heath, today’s work environment can pose a real challenge. Indeed, employees report that lack of time, lack of self-discipline, stress, and easy access to unhealthy foods are the chief obstacles to staying healthy on the job.

Here again, our research shows that health-conscious companies stand out. For example, workers at these companies were less likely to say that stress prevented them from maintaining a healthier lifestyle, compared with those at firms that don’t promote health.

Employers with a culture of health also do a better job of recognizing employees’ needs. For example, over two-thirds of workers at these firms say it is acceptable to take breaks for exercise, compared with only 44 percent of those at companies not emphasizing health.

Health-conscious employers are also more generous about letting employees leave work for a doctor’s appointment or to care for a sick child. They also are less tolerant of smoking – only forty percent of employees at firms emphasizing health say that smoking is acceptable, compared with 53 percent of those at firms not focusing on health.

Huge communication gap.    The research uncovered a remarkable perception gap between employers and employees as to the availability of workplace wellness programs. In an earlier survey of 400 large and small businesses across the United States, OptumHealth asked employers about their wellness offerings. Three-fourths of companies with 3,000 or more employees said they offered health risk assessments. Yet in the more recently completed employee survey, only nineteen percent of workers at companies of this size said that they were offered HRAs.

This significant difference clearly underscores the need to make a much more concerted effort to communicate wellness programs. Another chasm between workers and employers concerns wellness coaching – two-thirds of large firms said they offered it, compared with only seventeen percent of employees at large firms who said it was available.   At some companies, low awareness among employees of wellness programs is particularly acute at satellite offices which may be the result of not receiving thorough benefits communications from headquarters.

Understanding employees’ desires. Employers who want to create a culture of health should constantly assess their wellness programs to determine which offerings have the most impact.

According to the survey, health kiosks, flu shots, lunchtime exercise programs, smoking cessation programs, and interactive online coaching programs on healthier living and diet are viewed by employees as the most helpful in helping them become healthier.

The survey research offers insights for companies looking to boost their wellness programs. Those employees who don’t have workplace wellness offerings, or who have them available but don’t currently participate, cited several initiatives that they would find helpful, including:

  • Incentives for participating in counseling or coaching and achieving certain outcomes
  • Workplace gym
  • More healthy foods in vending machines or cafeterias

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but one of the most effective ways managers can promote healthier lifestyles among employees is to foster a culture of health throughout the company. Communicating the benefits of healthy living is just the beginning. To show they are really serious, senior managers should make it clear to all employees that taking time during the work day to exercise, for example, is acceptable.

There are no short cuts to developing a workplace culture of health. It takes resolve and discipline to institute a well-thought out initiative tailored to employees’ unique needs, championed by leadership and supported by a comprehensive foundation of communications and incentives. But the potential rewards – motivating employees to lead healthier lives, and enabling them to be more productive and loyal – are well worth it.

About the Authors

Laura Karkula, vice president of Product Management, Wellness, OptumHealth

Beena Thomas, MPH

Director, Health and Wellness OptumHealth Care Solutions

Beena Thomas, MPH, is Director, Health and Wellness for OptumHealth, a division of United Health Group.

Thomas is a seasoned healthcare professional with over 11 years of experience in innovative product development/implementation, strategic planning and evangelism in total health solutions. Nationally recognized as a subject matter expert in corporate wellness and population health, she has held various roles in the healthcare technology sector and managed care.  Thomas spent 10 years at WellPoint/Anthem in sales, human resources and product strategy roles.

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