Wellness: The Newest Voluntary Benefit?

Two vital and innovative trends in the workplace - wellness and voluntary benefits - have great potential to merge into one of the most exciting and powerful new benefits for employees: Voluntary Wellness Benefits. Our article projects what these benefits might look like and demonstrates how and why they meet both employee and employer objectives. Wellness and voluntary benefits each present new paradigms for employee benefits.  


Wellness programs aim at motivating changes in employee behavior so that illnesses and injuries traditionally covered by healthcare and disability coverage never happen in the first place. Voluntary benefits engage employees to actively participate in protecting their own health and financial security through payroll contributions.

Wellness Today

More than ever before, wellness is center stage in the growing movement to improve the health of employees. Employers are adding wellness features to health plans and offering programs to help employees and their families change unhealthy behaviors.


Some employers provide access to health related information, while others offer tools to develop personal wellness plans. Most of today's wellness programs for employees are subsidized by the employer. Awareness of the need for wellness is growing through media and education. Employees are looking to their employer for information, for resources, and for direction.

Voluntary Benefits Today

Voluntary benefits are emerging as the means to meet the life needs of employees and their families at a time when employer support for traditional core health, retirement and financial protection benefits is eroding. Voluntary benefits are often introduced to employees through face-to-face enrollment, with dramatically increased participation rates compared to traditional benefits communication.

Is Wellness Ready to Become the Newest Voluntary Benefit?

Strategically positioned as a voluntary workplace benefit, voluntary wellness programs would provide access to a wide menu of services that come under the wellness umbrella.  Employees would gain access to resources not otherwise available to them. Employee loyalty would increase with the recognition that their company is concerned with employee well-being. Productivity would increase as employees use wellness tools to help address stress and other life issues.


At first impression, wellness programs and voluntary benefits may seem to present very different employee engagement models. Wellness programs to date have typically utilized employer subsidized incentives - in a wide variety of forms - from cash to wellness expense reimbursement to health care premium differentials.


In contrast, employees enroll in the voluntary benefits they choose and pay for the programs with payroll based contributions or deductions. Incentives for wellness programs are seen as the "nudges" that move employees to adopt healthy behaviors. How can these two approaches to employee benefits engagement be reconciled?

Voluntary benefits are already being enhanced with wellness features. Some critical illness plans make health screenings available to enrolled employees, either as integral to the coverage or as a separately priced option. Voluntary wellness benefits are likely to offer a menu of wellness features accessed through payroll based contributions.  


Employees would recognize the value of these wellness benefits in much the same way as when they elect to participate in "traditional" voluntary benefits. As an example, in return for a "wellness membership" contribution, employees could receive screenings, health club membership discounts and access to smoking, obesity/weight, nutrition and stress management programs at favorable group rates.


Voluntary benefits providers could offer wellness memberships while enrolling employees for other voluntary benefits. Voluntary wellness benefits could be a significant new alternative for employers who care about the health and wellness of employees and their families but who cannot afford today's employer-subsidized wellness offerings.


Voluntary wellness programs could also lead to healthier employee behavior resulting in reduced health care costs. Employers offering voluntary wellness benefits would also be more highly valued by their employees.


Facilitating a wellness lifestyle will be appreciated in much the same way as is the offer of "traditional" voluntary benefits - which compliments, enhances and completes a benefits program, supplementing the employer subsidized core health and retirement benefits.


Voluntary wellness benefits and the associated wellness culture would be a key job differentiator for employees and help employers reach their goals for attracting and retaining the best and most productive workforce.

Why Would Employees Join a Voluntary Wellness Program?

Employees are increasingly investing in their own health and retirement security and, through voluntary benefits, in a variety of programs to meet their life needs. Existing wellness programs promote employee engagement and personal accountability for changing from unhealthy to healthy behavior, working best where a culture of health and wellness is part of the culture of the workplace.  


Employee incentives and subsidies have proven effective to attract participation in current wellness programs. However, we predict that, in the future, employees will be persuaded to join wellness programs on an employee paid basis where a culture of health and wellness convinces them that these programs will improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.

Wellness as a Voluntary Benefits Product

Payroll deduction based wellness benefits can be offered by voluntary benefits vendors teaming with wellness service providers. The enrollment skills and resources of the voluntary benefits vendors, when applied to wellness programs, could significantly improve employee participation in these programs. As well, voluntary wellness programs could be a differentiator for benefits product providers, advisors and brokers.

What Is the Employer's Role?

  • Negotiate the best deal for employees - use purchasing power and access to top tier vendors to create a menu of employees paid wellness benefits
  • Create a culture of wellness
  • Utilize vendors that are strategic partners
  • Support the effective communication of  the voluntary wellness programs

Communication

Voluntary wellness products would best be communicated using one-on-one enrollment. The enrollment conversation would not be limited to the wellness choices but would be broadened to support the culture of wellness. This may require an expanded skill set for the enrollers - through training and/or background qualifications.

Sample Product design - "Basic", "Basic Plus" and "Comprehensive"

"Basic" coverage would give the employee access to evaluation and education resources on a range of wellness topics- smoking cessation, obesity, stress reduction, nutrition and exercise."Basic Plus" would include the basic program along with a single targeted, issue-specific benefit selected from a menu of choices, such as a smoking cessation program."Comprehensive" benefits would extend beyond the basic to add access for the employee and family to the full menu of wellness programs and resources. This would make sense, for example, for employees likely to make use of the services for different family members.

Join the Voluntary Wellness Conversation!

Voluntary wellness benefits hold the promise of combining two of the most vital new trends in employee benefits into a powerful new offering benefiting both employees and employers. We invite our readers to join the conversation and development of these important new benefits approach to wellness as a voluntary benefit.

About the Authors

Donna Rhodes Joseph is founder and CEO and Peter Tobiason is co-founder and President of Rhodes-Joseph & Tobiason Advisors, www.rjtadvisors.com. They deliver value to their clients through creative and innovative approaches to employee benefits, bringing an experienced and independent employer perspective. They offer strategic advisory services and M&A transactional support to medium to larger employers and private equity, training and advisory services for benefits providers and brokers, and coaching for people working in employee benefits looking to grow their careers as benefits professionals.


Both Donna and Pete are Employee Benefits Professionals with experience as benefits leaders at a global multi-industry company where Donna was formerly Director of Benefits and Pete was Assistant General Counsel - Employee Benefits. Both are active professionally as speakers and authors. Donna has served on the Board of the American Benefits Council and Pete was Chair of the Board of Directors of the ERISA Industry Committee.

Donna holds a Bachelor of Arts from Boston University. Pete has an A.B. degree from Columbia University and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.Donna and Pete are co-authors of the eBook, "Making Voluntary WORKPLACE BENEFITS a Valued Feature of Every Employer's Benefits Program -The Guide for Every Advisor, Broker and Provider Marketing Voluntary Workplace Benefits to Employers".  


The eBook is available for complimentary download at www.VoluntaryWorkplaceBenefits.com. To learn more about coaching for Employee Benefits Professionals, please visit  www.GrowYourBenefitsCareer.com and download our FREE briefing paper, "7 Action Steps to Grow Your Employee Benefits Career".Headquartered in Stamford, CT, Rhodes-Joseph & Tobiason Advisors provides employee benefits advisory services throughout the U.S. and globally and is a woman owned and managed business.  www.rjtadvisors.com