The big buzz in employee healthcare for the past two years has been, and continues to be, wellness. The focus on that topic has been almost relentless, and the discussions with and among employers has been deafening. Companies want wellness initiatives and are almost religious about it.
Zealots of wellness programs have been pounding the drum louder and louder going into 2013, especially in light of enacting ways to comply with the Affordable Care Act. Wellness is here to stay.vKathryn Mayer writes in BenefitsPro magazine online, that workplace health promotion programs have the potential to reduce average worker health costs by 18 percent, and even more for older workers, according to a report by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
For a study published in the January Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers combined data from two major studies to estimate the possible savings in medical costs from reductions in key health risk factors. The study focused on seven risk factors or medical conditions typically addressed by workplace wellness programs: physical inactivity, low fruit and vegetable intake, smoking, overweight/obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and alcohol abuse.
The results suggests that-if all heightened risk factors could be reduced to their "theoretical minimums"-total medical care expenses per person for all working age adults would be reduced by about $650, or 18 percent. The possible savings increased with age-up to 28 percent for older working adults and retirees.
Researchers say that the findings support the more recent widespread interest of wellness programs by employers, adding that potential savings are obvious. Being engaged with your work may be good not only for your career, but it may be good for your health as well. New research has found that engaged workers are more likely than disengaged counterparts to lead a healthy lifestyle, according to Business News Daily.
Overall, engaged workers were not only more likely to eat healthfully and exercise more frequently, but they were also more likely than disengaged counterparts to eat their fruits and vegetables. "Engaged employees are deeply involved in and enthusiastic about their work," said Daniela Yu and Jim Harter of Gallup, who conducted the research and wrote the report. "Those who are not engaged may be satisfied, but are not emotionally connected to their workplaces and are less likely to put in discretionary effort.
Employees who are actively disengaged are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace and jeopardize their teams' performance." These findings fall in line with those of previous research, which found that engaged workers are less likely to be obese and suffer from chronic diseases.
Additional research found that engaged employees were also 21 percent more likely than disengaged employees to participate in health and wellness programs that are offered by their company. "Taken together, the data showcases the link between being engaged at work and leading a healthy lifestyle," the report said.
It is not clear, though, which way the relationship between engagement in the workplace and healthy behaviors goes. It is possible that workers without healthy lifestyles are more prone to illness, which then reduces their chance for being engaged at work, or that those who are actively disengaged are less likely to take part in healthy behaviors, perhaps due to time or a depressed outlook on life.
These findings in particular have importance not only for employees, but for companies as well.In particular, companies who try to improve employee engagement may see improved energy and productivity from workers while also reducing health care costs.
Wellness programs aren't new to the benefits industry, but employers are taking steps to get more out of these programs this year, according to BenefitsPro magazine. Here are some reasons why wellness is so important for employers and employees:
- Focusing on retention and sustainability: "So much attention is given to engaging employees in wellness programs, which is projected to remain a key focus; but it shouldn't stop there", says Stephanie Pronk, senior vice president at Aon Hewitt, a human resources consulting firm in Chicago.
Employers must also be concerned with retention. For a wellness program to work effectively, it should create a lifestyle change with sustainable results. More employers are accomplishing this through workplace practices-including programs like walking meetings and standing work stations. "When you think about why safety programs are so successful in organizations, it's because they're engrained in the culture," Pronk says.
"It's part of the way they do their work every day, so we need to work at health and wellness in the same way. We need culture changes to support healthy behaviors in the long term."
- Involve employees' families: Employers should target not only employees but family members, as well. Employers can do this by sending a family kit that includes games involving the entire family and healthful recipes and shopping lists.
This teaches everyone who might be on the employer's health plan to choose the right types of food and portion sizes, which reinforces those healthful habits."It's pretty easy to get the employee engaged, but it's a little harder to get the spouses and dependents engaged, too," Pronk says.
"We're finding that unit is really important in terms of changing behavior and sustaining that behavior."
- Transparency: In an effort to increase personal accountability, "employers are looking to create a wellness environment that embraces transparency", according to Pronk. Employers can promote transparency by celebrating major milestones regarding the health of the employees in the organization and distributing a quarterly health report.
"It is helpful when employers share what is happening with the health of the organization to ensure individuals understand how they make an impact," said Pronk. Transparency and lines of communication are very important.
- Practicing community involvement: While employers have been pushing healthy living among employees, more employers need to encourage wellness in the community. An employee might want to become more active; but if there are few places to safely walk or run, it makes it more difficult.
Considering the power employers have on their communities, more employers are taking this opportunity to push for better amenities, such as safe walking and running paths.
According to California Broker Magazine, certain employer strategies, such as consumer driven plans and wellness programs, are effective in motivating employees to improve their health. According to a survey from Aon Hewitt, researchers surveyed more than 2,800 employees and their dependents covered by employer health plans.
Sixty percent of employees who are enrolled in consumer-driven plans say they have made positive behavior changes related to their health; 28 percent get routine preventative care more often; 23 percent seek lower-cost health care options and 19 percent research health costs more frequently.
Seventy-eight percent of employees who are enrolled in consumer-driven plans are satisfied with the plans and 89 percent expect to re-enroll in this option for 2013. Ninety-seven percent of workers who have been in an account-based plan for two years or more say they plan to re-enroll. Up to half of consumers would participate in a wellness activity that offered no financial incentive as long as participation was easy and convenient.
Sixty-three percent of consumers would complete a health risk questionnaire for a monetary reward, and 62 percent would participate in a healthy eating or weight management program. Forty-eight percent would participate in a medically sponsored program to help them manage a health condition.
Fifty-eight percent of employers offer incentives for completing a lifestyle modification program (for example, to quit smoking or lose weight). About one-quarter offer incentives (monetary or non-monetary) for making progress toward meeting acceptable ranges for biometric measures, such as blood pressure, BMI, blood sugar, and cholesterol.
Eighty-six percent of workers who received suggested action steps based on a health-risk questionnaire went on to take some action, and 65 percent made at least one lifestyle improvement. Right now the Department of Labor, in conjunction with HHS and the IRS, is considering regulations governing workplace wellness programs under the Affordable Care Act, which includes provisions designed to stimulate such efforts, according to The Hill's Congress Blog.
Encouraging businesses to set up workplace wellness programs can help move us toward a healthier citizenry and reduce healthcare costs, but as now written, the rules don't reflect best practices and could result in significant unintended consequences by penalizing unhealthy workers and those with the least access to nutritious food and healthy physical activity.
One important part is collaboration between workers and management in the design of programs. Rather than imposing workplace wellness as a top-down directive, managers should work with employees, who should have a voice in selecting program elements. This will also help ensure that programs are culturally relevant to the firm's workforce.
The best programs also make use of comprehensive, multifaceted strategies that focus on both individuals and their environment. These can include a variety of elements, including counseling and information, assessments to help employees identify and address key risk factors, and establishment of policies and practices to support a healthy workplace, such as encouraging the use of stairs and establishing healthy food guidelines for cafeterias and vending machines.
Sadly, while 90 percent of workplaces report some sort of wellness activity, only seven percent provide the multiple elements necessary for a truly effective approach. Heading the list of what does not work are strategies that tie individual employees' share of health insurance premiums to health-related behaviors and/or meeting health benchmarks.
Corporate wellness programs are successful only if people are engaged. When large amounts of people commit to living a healthier life, the results can be amazing, according to www.ShapeUp.com.
Lower health care costs, increased productivity, and improved morale are just the tip of the iceberg for employers, and this doesn't mention the value of happy, healthy employees. But with too few employees involved in wellness and working to improve their health, employers are looking for ways to engage workers. No matter what aspect of wellness you select, here is a list of five items that will help with engagement in your employee wellness program:
- Make it interesting: Most people are more motivated to get involved when their friends get involved. Social incentives are a captivating and cost-effective way to recruit and engage those that may otherwise be out of their reach. Plus, it's simple. Setting people up on teams provides social support and accountability, the spirit of friendly competition, public recognition, and altruistic opportunities.
With social incentives, people take the proper actions adopt healthy behaviors because they are inclined to participate in group activities and help others. Over time these behaviors create lasting connections to continue the healthy behaviors over the long term.
Also, consider the use of small financial incentives to encourage positive behaviors, but incentivize the proper behaviors. Financial incentives boost participation in one-time actions, but they fail to move the needle on outcomes-based initiatives.
So rather than incentivizing based on participation, you can encourage progress and social actions. It is also best to provide financial rewards in real-time, as this ties in the memory of a positive action associated with the behavior you're rewarding.
- Use the power of social networks: Recent research has found that good health spreads through social networks. When you exercise, the people around you are more likely to exercise. Put simply, social recruiting gets people involved, and social support and accountability keep them involved.
Start with wellness champions--those people who are always first to volunteer and help out. Recruit them to recruit others. Invite wellness champions to take a leadership role in your program and give them the tools they need (including empowerment) to engage their colleagues.
- Track, report, and update: People always want to know how they measure up against those around them. This knowledge provides a benchmark for success and allows them to see how they compare, whether to their own goal or to other similar people.
When hosting wellness activities, share results with your company. If you're hosting a walking program, for example, let everyone know how many steps the average employee is walking per day.
Drill down into the data you have available to show averages per worksite, gender, and age group so people can see the data most relevant to them. Weekly updates of what's going on, who's doing well, and what others can do to jump in on the action help stoke the fire and provide a recap of all the great activities that are going on.
- Keep it simple: Don't get lost in the details-- emails, documents, presentations, or seemingly almost any medium. People are inundated by messaging. The point is that if your message is not simple, it's impossible to break through the noise.
How can you get someone engaged in your program? Clear messaging with a consistent call to action that is repeated through different mediums. It also certainly helps to appeal on an emotional level with your messaging, which should work hand-in-hand with the benefits for the program.
- Hold On-site activities: When orchestrated well, a wellness campaign should have multiple message mediums that orchestrate well to drive home a point. Nothing brings everything together like hands-on involvement. For this reason events and activities that are interesting and engaging will rally your company around wellness.
Engaging employees is critical for success in any company wellness program. If they don't buy in, your ROI is slimmer and more difficult to recoup. Find out what works best for your organization, then embrace it. Plus, realize that behavioral change doesn't happen overnight, especially when you're dealing with humans.
About the Author:
Mark Roberts' professional sales background includes 30 years of sales and marketing in the tax, insurance and investment markets. Mark is a licensed life, health and accident insurance agent in all 50 states and DC, for insurance products and discount health plans.
He serves as Manager of National Accounts at Careington International Corporation (www.careington.com). Additionally, Mark works with clients needing insured products (www.careingtonbenefitsolutions.com) in the US and discount dental and optical schemes in the UK (www.healthydiscounts.co.uk).
Mark has been writing a health care blog for the past five years, (www.yourbesthealthcare.blogspot.com), which is a topical weblog about various health care issues. He also regularly contributes articles to magazines for both medical and dental topics both in the US and the UK. You can reach Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.