A Word on Wellness

Workplace wellness programs are a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, with thousands of vendors promising to help employers reduce health care costs and improve employee health and productivity. Although most large employers offer some type of wellness program, questions remain as to their effectiveness. A number of different studies have delivered conflicting results, with some showing savings and health improvements, and others warning employers not to expect any return on investment.

When it comes to implementing a workplace wellness program, the options for employers are plentiful

Workplace wellness programs are a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, with thousands of vendors promising to help employers reduce health care costs and improve employee health and productivity. Although most large employers offer some type of wellness program, questions remain as to their effectiveness. A number of different studies have delivered conflicting results, with some showing savings and health improvements, and others warning employers not to expect any return on investment.

Nonetheless, employers continue to embrace programs designed to promote the health and well-being of their employees. And there are good reasons to do so. Even studies that show dismal results in terms of health care savings concede that workplace wellness programs have perceived value to employees and can influence employee health behaviors, if not health outcomes.

Generally speaking, the term “wellness program” refers to programs and activities intended to help employees improve their health and reduce their health care costs. However, such programs have expanded over the years to include components focused on well-being beyond physical health, including mental health, financial health, community involvement, social connectedness and job satisfaction.

A workplace wellness program can be structured in a number of different ways and can vary significantly in terms of the services and activities it includes. However, workplace wellness programs often include one or more of the following elements:

Educational Programs
A workplace wellness program can be as simple as hosting “lunch and learn” sessions where employees can learn about healthy behaviors or stress management techniques; making informational videos or podcasts available on the employer’s intranet; placing posters promoting healthy behaviors in common areas; or hosting onsite health fairs.

Tobacco Cessation
A typical tobacco cessation program relies on the honor system, providing an incentive (such as reduced medical plan premiums) if the employee attests that he or she does not use tobacco products. Third-party wellness vendors can help employers verify an employee’s tobacco status through more objective means, such as a blood test, but this is less common. Other components include counseling, educational materials and medical plan coverage for tobacco cessation medications.

Health Risk Assessments and Biometric Screenings
Workplace wellness programs often provide employees with opportunities to complete a health risk assessment (a questionnaire about the employee’s medical history, health status, and lifestyle), biometric screening (a health examination conducted by a medical professional), or both. In addition to informing employees about their health status, employers can use the results of such screenings to tailor their wellness programs and other health benefits so they better align with the specific needs of their workforce.

Physical Activity Programs or Challenges
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes regular physical activity as one of the most important things individuals can do to improve their health. It should come as no surprise, then, that encouraging physical activity is a major component of many workplace wellness programs. The complexity of such programs run the gamut, from posting motivational signs at elevators to encourage stair use, to providing no-cost or subsidized fitness trackers coupled with activity challenges and on-site exercise facilities.

Disease Management Programs
A more involved wellness program is likely to include a disease management program geared to a specific group of individuals who have, or are at risk of developing, the same chronic medical condition – such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma. For example, a disease management program for individuals with diabetes might provide case managers to help ensure employees are taking their medications and making physician appointments, special education and counseling opportunities, and discounts on diabetes medications and supplies.

Incentives
Many workplace wellness programs use incentives to encourage participation in the program and healthier behavior. The incentives range from relatively minor – for example, raffle tickets and gift cards — to significant reductions in medical plan premiums, deductibles, copayments or coinsurance.

7 QUESTIONS EMPLOYERS NEED TO CONSIDER

1. What are the employer’s key goals for the program?

2. Are the program’s goals and activities relevant to the employer’s workforce, taking into consideration employee age, relative health, turnover rate and general appetite for workplace wellness benefits?

3. Will the program provide incentives and, if so, how much and in what form?

4. Will the program be offered to all employees or only to employees enrolled in the employer’s medical plan?

5. Will the program encourage employees’ family members to participate?

6. What compliance and tax implications will the program raise?

7. How will the success of the program be evaluated?

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