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Reassessing Your Wellness Programs to Create A Culture of Health

Seth Serxner, Ph.D., MPH

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Would you rather have an employee who is distracted and lethargic, or who is engaged and accountable? The latter, of course. That, in a nutshell, is the business case for health and wellness programs and creating a culture of health.

Employers we surveyed told us that they offer wellness programs to manage health care costs, improve health, minimize absence and disability claims, improve job satisfaction, attract talented employees and improve business performance.

Well-designed wellness programs can help employers create a culture of health in the workplace – an environment that encourages employees to perform at their best while enabling healthy choices throughout the workday.

According to Optum’s Seventh Annual Wellness in the Workplace Study, 60 percent of large employers say it is very important to achieve a culture of health at work. However, only 20 percent have actually done so.

Clearly, there’s work to be done. Three key elements to building a culture of health are: designing a wellness strategy that goes beyond physical health; ensuring that the workplace environment facilitates healthy decision-making; and helping employees navigate the complex health care system.

It’s Not Just About Physical Wellness

Financial security is linked to physical and mental health for many consumers. Employees often cite financial uncertainty as causing the most stress, even more than their job, health or relationships. Indeed, 60 percent of employees report being somewhat or very stressed about their financial situation, up from 50 percent in 2013, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch study.

More than ever, conversations about health and wellness include the importance of total well-being — physical, behavioral, financial and social. Despite this rising awareness, however, employer responses to Optum’s survey indicate much more is needed to achieve this holistic approach. While physical health wellness programs are nearly universal, other aspects of well-being lag behind.

When asked, “What aspects of employee well-being does your health and wellness strategy address,” employers responded as follows:

  • 95% address physical health
  • 65% address behavioral health
  • 44% address social health
  • 37% address financial health

To embrace wellness more holistically, employers should assess their current program portfolio to identify gaps, consider providing financial education and on-site stress reduction programs, and rethink how existing physical health interventions – such as fitness challenges and wellness coaching – can meet social and mental health needs.

Leverage Environmental Changes

Research suggests that the workplace environment exerts strong unconscious influences on decision-making. Our best intentions compete with environmental cues that nudge us in the wrong direction – desk-based jobs, comfort foods in the cafeteria and unappealing stairwells.

A solid majority – 85 percent – of employers told us that environmental changes are at least somewhat likely to help employees make healthy decisions. For example, employers could add attractive lighting to encourage stairwell use, offer healthy food choices in vending machines and the cafeteria, and provide outdoor walking paths and sit-to-stand workstations.

Here too, there is room for improvement. Only eight percent of health and wellness budgets on average are allocated to changing the workplace environment, according to our survey. Additionally, fewer than half of employers have made changes to the health environment at work, a trend that has remained relatively flat over the last few years.

Help Employees Through the Maze

Only 20 percent of the employers we surveyed strongly believe that their employees know how to navigate the health care system. That’s not surprising, given the sometimes bewildering array of health plans, provider networks and benefit designs employees can choose from. At a time when employees are being asked to take more responsibility for their health, they are navigating a system that has never been more complex.

To address this challenge, employers should embrace a health advocacy model. Health advocacy services connect employees with trained advisors who can help answer their questions and navigate the system, thereby optimizing health care decision-making. Employers should also consider offering other programs that are designed to help facilitate navigation, including:

  • Case management
  • Transparency tools
  • Telemedicine

Beyond offering wellness programs, a culture of health is about transforming the attitudes and beliefs of your employee population. Helping employees adopt and sustain healthy lifestyles requires a constant reassessment of your strategy, execution model and goals. The dawn of the New Year is a good time to embark on that journey.


About the Author

Seth Serxner, Ph.D., MPH, is the chief health officer at Optum.  

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