Successfully Engaging Employees in Wellness Programs

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Health and wellness professionals consistently report that motivating individuals to participate in a workplace wellness program is the biggest challenge they face. While wellness programs in the workplace have a significant advantage - reaching employees where they spend the majority of their week - they are only as successful as the number of employees who actively participate in them.


In addition to getting on-site employees to engage in wellness programs, securing participation has become increasingly difficult as the workforce expands beyond a company's four walls. During these challenging economic times, some employers have been cutting costs by offering the opportunity to work from satellite locations or home offices.


As a result, it is more difficult for employers to implement a one-size-fits-all wellness program that includes all employees. To achieve success, wellness program managers are encouraged to embrace incentives, pair programs with educational outreach and leverage the Web to reach employees near and far.

Incentives to Increase Participation

Company wellness programs range in size and complexity - some organizations host on-site wellness activities such as biometric screenings, nutrition training and company-organized walks. Others deploy month-long programs that track various health activities to help employees meet individual goals. Though all programs are different, one constant remains: more engaged individuals equal long-term behavior changes.


And engagement is most often increased when it is tied to incentives for participation and meeting goals. Many employers that offer wellness programs boost participation by providing incentives such as gym membership discounts, cash, gift cards or points redeemable for prizes. With the passage of the new federal healthcare law, employers will have the opportunity to provide even greater incentives to employees who meet certain health-related benchmarks.


While incentives may be a smart choice to encourage participation from employees who work in the office, it can be much harder to include those who work remotely. When trying to include remote employees in a wellness initiative, one of the biggest challenges for employers is finding an incentive package - aside from the offer of straight cash or physical prizes - that can apply to all remote employees.


For example, some may work in a metropolitan area, where gym memberships or discounts to athletic stores are a viable option. But others may live in rural areas where the resources of a city market are not available. By evaluating the work force - both in and out of the office - wellness program managers could determine the type of incentives they think would work best, even if that means offering different incentives to employees in different areas.

Multi-channel Approach to Employee Education

Most employers-based wellness programs have, or should add, an educational component. In order to encourage employees to get and remain healthy, employers need to constantly reinforce the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. The educational aspect of wellness programs rely on a mixture of paper handouts, instructor-led courses and in-person coaching to keep individuals continually informed about health and wellness.


Remote employees, however, lack availability and accessibility to get involved in these components. With everything moving to the Internet these days - the Web is used by 74.1 percent of the U.S. population, according to Nielsen Online - it makes sense for a company to move some of their wellness education programs and information online. Through the Web, employers can deliver the same content to their entire employee population at any time, no matter where they work.


Online solutions can also deliver the same information at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs. Instead of passing out paper materials and mailing them to remote employees, employers can simply upload the content once to the Internet and distribute it instantly to their entire population.


To replace or supplement on-site training, companies can use online videos to convey the information they would have shared in-person. For example, video can be used to discuss nutrition, exercise, weight and stress management, or smoking cessation employees. Communicating online with streaming webcasts or instant replays of recorded session can be an ideal way for a remote population to stay connected.

Engage Employees with a Comprehensive Online Wellness Program

According to a report titled, "WORKING WELL: A Global Survey of Health Promotion and Workplace Wellness Strategies," produced by Buck Consultants, the fastest-growing components of wellness initiatives, namely technology-driven tools such as Web portals and online healthy lifestyle programs, are expected to increase 100 percent or more over the next three years.


By hosting a wellness program online, employers can also take advantage of a number of interactive tools including health risk assessments (HRAs) and educational health modules. Hosting these on the Web is not only less expensive, but has nearly the same effect as hosting on site.


In addition, online wellness programs provide companies the ability to customize information for employees. Most Web-based wellness tools, such as HRAs, can populate a report for an individual employee, identifying current health issues and recommended actions based on results. Using an HRA can be extremely important for not only planning a relevant on-site wellness initiative for employees, but also for deciding what to provide to remote employees.


For example, if an employer knows that one of their remote employees struggles with inactivity, they could design an individualized incentive program that gets him or her moving. HRAs and other online tools can also help measure success and return on investment from year to year.


Employers that have multiple locations or a widespread employee base often find it hard to distribute, collect and track information from wellness initiatives. Many online wellness programs offer comprehensive reporting capabilities, which allow employers to easily view and quantify results. In addition, these reports allow employees throughout the country to track their progress.

Evaluating Online Wellness Programs

Employers who use Web-based wellness initiatives generally experience positive feedback from participants. The privacy and convenience of the Internet eliminates the hesitation some employees have about providing personal information to the company wellness program manages and also allows an employees' personal wellness goals to remain private. However, an online program might not be best for all companies as additional reporting and privacy requirements are placed on employers.


When using an online system, employers must make sure they are compliant with federal laws. Wellness programs are subject to HIPAA regulations that apply to employee health, including privacy and insurance benefits. Employers that use the Web to manage wellness program or other employee benefits need to be aware of these Federal regulations.


Even though some programs have yielded impressive results, online offerings often cannot stand alone. To get the best return on investment, companies should incorporate online solutions as part of a coordinated wellness program. By incorporating various components of a wellness program, employers can implement a program as unique as their work force.


To maximize participation and results, consider engaging employees in the process when designing a wellness program. To circumvent these issues, employers need to get creative. If they cannot come up with one wellness package that can apply to everyone, they should customize it based on what they know about each individual employee. After all, employees are more likely to participate if the experience feels personal.


About the Author

Annmarie Fini is the Senior Vice President of the Employer Division at Benefitfocus largest healthcare and voluntary benefits software provider in the U.S. Benefitfocus offers a single Web-based platform for benefit shopping, enrollment, management and industry standard data exchange. Benefitfocus - All Your Benefits.


One Place. Benefitfocus developed its own wellness program for associates, iGetFit|iWin, which blended in-office and online training aimed at bringing disparate employees together and encouraging healthy lifestyles. Benefitfocus can be found online at www.benefitfocus.com.