If you go online and Google “corporate wellness”, you will be inundated with links and advertisements from hundreds, if not thousands of wellness program vendors, and even more articles. Most of those articles tout the success and necessity of such programs. And although some articles attempt to debunk the usefulness of the programs, you will find that they tend to be written by healthcare professionals whose business will be drastically reduced if their patients become healthy.
From Dubai to Dublin to Denver, implementation of corporate wellness programs is in vogue. Much of the growth in these programs has been in the last few years. Wellness programs began to take hold in the 1980’s, but they have taken a long time to catch on.
Part of the challenge is the recognition by healthcare insurers of the benefits of wellness programs (will the employees really use them? Will their health improve?). Another challenge is the regulatory issues caused by HIPAA and other healthcare-related legislation that makes discounting premium for employees based on their health factors a possibly discriminatory act.
Yes, we know – not being able to discriminate based on health factors when pricing health insurance seems a bit counter intuitive, but it’s the way the laws are written for now. Healthcare insurers eventually found the rationales they needed to get around those prohibitions, and interestingly they can now provide discounts for employees who participate in certain activities without actually checking for results in the employees’ health profiles.
One of the most common attributes for wellness programs is the Health Risk Assessment (HRA). Some programs consist of nothing more than an HRA, but for most, it is a tool for an employee to self-identify risk factors that need tending to. Some of them are apparent without any help from the HRA. For example, if an employee smokes, there’s a very good chance that he or she knows it’s probably not a good thing.
However, many employees are unaware of how very high-risk their status is if they smoke and have a history of stroke or heart disease in their near family, and are also overweight. An HRA can help an employee see clearly what impact his lifestyle is having on his health.
With the growth of the internet, and the widespread acceptance by health insurers to engage in some form of wellness support, these HRAs can be taken in the privacy of the employee’s home, and the results are strictly confidential. Some insurer or wellness program systems are sophisticated enough to provide recommendations for improving health based on the employee’s input.
Across the board, employers who have invested in wellness programs have seen returns from 300% to 1000% on their invested dollars. These results occur not only in reduced healthcare and workers compensation costs, but reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.
This is all well and good, but what is a “wellness program”? We’ll explore that thoroughly through this series of articles. There is a surprisingly broad range of activities and services to wellness programs, and the choices can be overwhelming. The good news is that an employer can structure a program to suit their needs. The bad news is that if the program is insufficiently robust to produce favorable results, their perception of wellness programs may be forever tainted.
According to a recent MetLife survey, over 57 percent of large employers (500+ employees) and 16 percent of small employers offer some form of wellness program. These programs generally include smoking cessation and weight loss assistance, and 80 percent of these employers also provide financial incentives such as reduction in the employee’s contribution to healthcare insurance, or membership at a gym.
Many small employers feel they cannot afford to engage in a wellness program. They may need to rely upon their healthcare insurer to provide most, if not all benefits.
A 2008 study by Maritz, an employee motivation consultant, indicates that 16 percent of employees participate at least once a week in a wellness program activity, given no incentive to do so. If an incentive is provided for obtaining certain goals, that number jumps up to 23 percent. The study also shows that these participating employees are more loyal to and engaged with their employer, and they miss significantly less work than their non-participating co-workers.
One of the variables not addressed in the Maritz study was the level of wellness culture at the various employers surveyed. It would be interesting to note the participation percentages where management was fully engaged in the wellness challenge and actively encouraged participation, versus those where the wellness program is merely offered to the employee for his or her usage if desired.
Dating back to the days of the musclemen on Venice Beach, and the crazy runners of the 1970s, there has always been a small cross-section of the population that looked at their bodies and decided to be proactive in creating a stronger, healthier one. These people taking an active interest in their health have been in the minority. Today, we are seeing a polarization in the United States, where over 70% of the population is overweight (about half of those obese) and the remaining percentage seem to be at the gym. People who are just “naturally” in shape or healthy seem to be limited to those engaged in physical labor, and certainly no longer consists of a large portion of young people. Obesity in children has reached epidemic proportions.
Apparently, there is not much of a wellness culture permeating the country. However, there are pockets of wellness, as indicated by the proliferation of gyms, spas, fitness centers, fitness classes, etc. that thrive in many areas.
If the population does not want to become fit or stay fit on its own, what is an employer to do with his workforce?
Developing a wellness culture within a workplace can be a daunting task. And most importantly, it must start at the top. It is very challenging for employees to take the exhortations of their managers to become healthier seriously if the boss is an overweight smoker who cannot make it up the stairs in the morning without stopping for rest breaks.
However, if a management team is committed to healthier lifestyles and committed to supporting and encouraging all employees to achieve healthier lifestyles, then they’re halfway down the road to creating a wellness culture.
As a practical matter, the wellness culture can manifest in many ways, some of them a bit subtle. For example, if an employer has vending machines at work, are they filled only with chips, cookies and soft drinks? Or do they also offer options such as rice cakes and vegetable juice? If there’s a company cafeteria, are low-fat and low-salt options available for employees? If only fast food restaurants are near an office, do they offer employees a refrigerator so they can bring their own healthy lunches? Or do they allow employees sufficient time to go to healthier restaurants?
If a group of employees wanted to start walking after work, would their employer allow them to come in a little earlier during winter months so it would still be light when they left to walk? Could they provide flexible hours for employees that exercise on their lunch hour? Or let those who want to exercise right after work, take a shorter lunch?
Could an employer institute a reward system or contest for exercise/wellness pursuits? A reserved parking spot for the person who exercised most consistently the previous month? Or a Biggest Loser reward for the person who lost the most weight during the year?
Many of these endeavors are inexpensive, if they cost anything at all, and once an employer starts thinking “how can I support all of us getting healthier”, they will be amazed at the number of options that are presented.
An employer can also ask their employees what would motivate them, and what activities or reward systems they would most like to participate in.
If the desire to be healthy starts from the top down, it will infiltrate all layers of management and workforce. Once it becomes the expected norm, many more employees will assume the same attitude, if for no other reason than that they want to fit in. It can be quite disconcerting to be the only person sitting at their desk eating fried chicken when everyone else is exercising and eating well, looking and feeling better than they ever have and reaping the rewards of whatever incentive programs their employer may have instituted. An employer should not be afraid to take advantage of peer pressure in encouraging their employees to participate. Naturally, those with a disability or a medical contraindication to exercise must be treated accordingly.
Obesity and other health concerns have reached such epidemic proportions that the federal government is looking at stepping in to provide motivation, guidelines, or incentives that will encourage employers to make wellness a higher priority in the workplace.
There are two bills pending in Congress that have not yet passed but may well become law in the near future.
The Wellness and Prevention Act of 2007 (HR 853) provides for a wellness program tax credit for employers that develop and implement a program that provides certain services. The Act even extends a tax credit to participating employees.
The Healthy Workforce Act of 2007 (S 1753) provides a tax credit for an employer offering a “qualified wellness program”.
In September of 2008, the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring the first week of April to be “National Workplace Wellness Week” in recognition of the importance of health promotion in the workplace.
Also in September of 2008, the Senate passed a resolution recognizing the importance of workplace wellness as a strategy to help maximize employees’ health and well being.
For many years, employers have felt it is the employees’ responsibility to care for their own wellness, to find the time to exercise, eat right, and relieve stress. However, many people, including some of the most unwell employees spend more time working than they do in any other single activity, so it’s easy to see why the government would feel that it is becoming the employers’ responsibility to ensure that there are at least tools offered to the employee to facilitate better health.
Greg Justice, MA
Co-Author / International Best-Seller
“Total Body Breakthroughs”