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Inept wellness programs that waste company money and employee time have three things in common: misguided intentions, the wrong metrics to gauge success, and lack of buy-in from managerial staff.

We’ll discuss things that make a make wellness program work, and what a company should expect to gain from its success.

Why wellness?

Why would a company bother with wellness in the first place? Isn’t that a personal issue?

Unhealthy employees cost companies more than healthy ones. According to a University of Michigan study: “One out of every four dollars employers pay for health care is tied to unhealthy lifestyle choices or conditions like smoking, stress and obesity, despite the fact that most large employers have workplace wellness programs.”

Furthermore, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) incentivizes up 30-50 percent of healthcare costs if a company can show that employees meet standards for obesity, cholesterol, blood pressure, and smoking cessation.

All kinds of money is on the table for companies to show a working wellness program in place. That’s why companies spend $6 billion dollars a year on programs that, for the most part, are not getting results.

How are wellness programs failing?

The truth is in the data. A congressionally-mandated report by RAND Corporation puts numbers on the ineffectiveness of corporate wellness initiatives:

  • Half of U.S. employers with 50 seats or more have a wellness plan in place.
  • Wellness programs fall into two main categories—health screenings and behavioral interventions. Most plans have both.
  • Low participation in both types of programs: less than half of eligible employees get screenings; less than 20% participated in interventions.
  • Analysis of a database kept by a trade group representing the $6 billion wellness industry showed participants had marginal gains in lowering body weight, lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and smoking cessation.
  • Companies with wellness programs show no statistically significant decreases in company healthcare costs and health care use over a five year term.

Getting ROI on healthcare costs is founded on fiction

Big Wellness—the companies who conduct the biometric screenings, health risk assessments, and wellness seminars—love citing statistics like the Michigan survey mentioned above. It makes selling the ROI potential of a wellness program to an HR department a slam dunk.

Another thing Big Wellness has going for it is the “Safeway amendment” which is written into the ACA which legally allows employers to impose incentive-based healthcare premium schemes based on wellness program participation and biometric data.

Around the time the ACA was being drafted, Safeway Inc. CEO Steven Burd claimed the company controlled healthcare costs by incentivizing employees to enroll in wellness programs that involved measuring biometric targets like body weight, tobacco use, blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels. Safeway employees that enrolled and met the goals payed a lesser premium than those that did not. This model was deemed exemplary by legislators on both sides of the aisle, and written into the ACA.

Eventually, Washington Post exposed the cost savings were not tied to the wellness program, but rather, Safeway effectively unloaded a swath of healthcare costs onto an “unhealthy” segment of its workforce. These types of incentivized workplace wellness programs have become commonplace in corporate America.

Critics challenge the assumption that they result in any real “savings” for companies—fewer missed days, fewer doctor visits—arguing that they benefit already-fit employees at the expense of those with health problems.

Either way, the RAND report shows that the “healthy or else” model is not getting the returns. Also, all the poking and prodding employees unnecessarily lowers morale.

The Solution? Promote well-being more than wellness

In probing why wellness programs fall short, research from Gallup-Healthways says that lack of engagement is the issue—only 60% employees are aware that a wellness program is to available them; of those, only 40% participate. That’s a dismal 24% overall participation rate in corporate wellness.

Where is the breakdown occurring? Gallup contends it is a failure of management to connect with employees. If an employee feels that their manager cares about his or her well-being, it is a deciding factor whether or not they participate in a wellness program participation, the study found.

What is well-being exactly? The research identifies five points:

  • Purpose: liking the work you do and motivation to achieve goals.
  • Social: having meaningful relationships in your life.
  • Financial: managing money to reduce stress and have a sense of security.
  • Community: feeling safe and having pride where you live.
  • Physical: taking care of your health; weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, et cetera.

If employees don’t feel the company cares about all five of these points, the physical wellness discussion isn’t happening.

The employee has to trust the motives of the company to participate in something like wellness.  This trust boils down to positive sense of work-life balance.

It is the responsibility of management to instill a healthy workplace culture. The pay-off is higher quality work, employees that are less likely to miss work due to illness, and better rates of retention.

The key takeaway from Gallup for ROI-conscious companies is this: the study finds that employees with high overall “well-being” have 41% lower health related costs.

Actionable ways to promote well-being (and wellness)

First and foremost, you need someone in the office to champion wellness initiatives. Whether that’s management or a fitness-minded staff member, all wellness initiatives need leaders for enthusiasm and awareness.

One good thing about Safeway’s Steven Burd is that he walked the walk. “To Burd’s credit, he kind of led the way on the health and wellness lifestyle” for employees, a union spokesman told a local newspaper when he retired from the company in 2012.

Companies need someone like that to create a culture of well-being and, henceforth, wellness. Identify and engage these people to help put a program in place and promote it to the workforce.

Here are a few starting points to draw from:

  • Allowance (full or partial) for a gym membership—contingent on use.
  • A flexible work schedule that allows time to use that gym membership.
  • Newsletters and display boards for nutritional advice, fitness program awareness, and leaderboards for fitness challenges.
  • Structured points-based systems for pounds lost, participation in company-sponsored fitness events, like a 5K or 10K run, and weekly pedometer contests. Gift cards for the winners.
  • Healthy snacks in the office: Low-carb options like nuts and dried fruit. Put a juicer in the office kitchen.
  • Accommodate standing desks—(read this before buying one)
  • Emphasize eye care for computer monitors.
  • Subsidized activity trackers for use with a structured online program like Vitality, Sonic Boom, or others.

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Final thoughts & value proposition

A well-executed plan should be measured by employee engagement. It will drive a sense of well-being for employees, showing that company and management cares about their overall health and work-life balance. A good ROI for wellness programs is realized in workers bringing their best selves to the office every day, producing quality work, and staying with the company.

Most Wellness Programs Fail; How to Make Yours Work
Article Name
Most Wellness Programs Fail; How to Make Yours Work
Inept corporate wellness programs have three things in common: misguided intentions, the wrong metrics to gauge success, and lack of buy-in from managerial staff. How to fix it and improve employees' well-being.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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