Wellness Programs Keep Workers and Businesses Healthy

Employers are finding that employee wellness programs are just what the doctor ordered. These health management initiatives are designed to keep healthy workers in top form, while helping those with chronic conditions to better manage their illnesses.

Wellness programs seem to be working. Companies that provide them say these programs result in lower health care costs and fewer sick days used. Rising health care costs are of major concern to employers of all sizes, as well as employees. According to the Aon Hewitt 2012 Health Care Survey, employer spending on employee health care continues to escalate – an increase of 40 percent over the past six years to an average of $8,000 per employee. At the same time, employee spending on out-of-pocket health care costs continues to climb, increasing 82 percent over the same period; outpacing their average income gains.

Wellness programs also boost employee engagement and productivity and help in recruitment and retention. Wellness initiatives can reduce inpatient admissions and emergency room visits, minimize complications, and improve quality of life.

According to the 2012 Willis Health and Productivity Survey, 60 percent of employers indicated that they have some type of wellness program, an increase of 13 percent from 2010. Additionally, employers are not scaling back — 58 percent indicate they plan to expand their wellness initiatives with programs or resources. It’s not only large firms that are signing on. A 2012 poll of more than 11,700 businesses across industries and of various sizes conducted by United Benefits Advisors revealed that the largest increase and fastest growth in adoption came from organizations with 500 to 999 employees and those with 50 to 99 employees (23.7 percent).

What Do Wellness Programs Cover?

Wellness programs cover a variety of services: health risk appraisals, flu shots, weight-management, smoking cessation and stress reduction programs, onsite fitness centers and health club discounts, Web-based health and fitness tools, and mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Originally, wellness initiatives focused on major illness such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease. But employers have found that it’s smart business to address mental health issues as well. Behavioral health problems are the fifth-leading cause of short-term disability and rank third for long-term disability.

Money Matters

Why would companies want the extra work of managing the health of their workers? Among other reasons, if you can keep employees in the pink, they’ll use health care services less, costing businesses less. In the Hewitt poll, two-thirds of companies said that wellness programs helped rein in their health costs by an average of five to 12 dollars per employee, per condition annually. Other statistics put business returns in the range of $1.50 to $17 per dollar invested.

How Wellness Programs Work

Typically, companies hire outside vendors who partner with, or subcontract to, specialty providers. Some vendors conduct medical tests or run family histories. Some help employees identify or manage health problems, then steer workers to appropriate programs. Other vendors skip the medical screening altogether and jump right into a program of the worker’s choice. In some businesses, a “health coach” oversees the employee’s progress; helping to set goals and staying in touch via telephone or online.

Providing incentives so employees want to participate is critical, say experts. Currently more than half of U.S. businesses with wellness initiatives offer incentives. These “bribes” might be lower premiums and copays, cash contributions to health savings and reimbursement accounts, or paying workers to fill out a health risk assessment questionnaire, complete a program or achieve certain results (e.g. lower cholesterol or blood pressure).

Other employers offer flex credits or points that are exchanged for merchandise or money. Some employers have adopted a tough-love approach, slapping on a premium surcharge for those who won’t participate in wellness programs and/or get results. (Critics argue that such “forced fitness” encroaches on employees’ rights.)

Creating a Wellness Program

There’s no one-size-fits-all wellness program. Yet there are universal questions all businesses can ask:

  • What are your goals?
  • Who is your audience? Make sure the program appeals to all age groups and fitness levels.
  • How involved do you want to be? Would you hold an informational health fair, or do you expect employees to get educated on their own? Will you sponsor a series of events? Offer services through one or more private vendors?
  • What do you want to spend?
  • How will you gauge improvement? A longitudinal study to measure employees’ health over time? Establishing metrics based on productivity, absenteeism and health insurance claims?
  • What incentives will you offer?
  • What does your attorney say? Have employees signed consent forms before participating in an exercise program? Employers must understand and adhere to two federal laws, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Have you publicized the programs? Do workers grasp their scope, the incentives and the schedule of events? Do they know that the medical information they are volunteering is confidential?

Best Practices: What’s Out There?

Many of AARP’s current and past Best Employers for Workers Over 50 offer innovative wellness programs. Among them:

At the National Institutes of Health, a four-time Best Employer winner, including the top-ranked winner in 2013, full- and part-time employees receive the following wellness benefits: flu shots, health screenings, health risk appraisals, smoking cessation programs, health club discounts, physical activity and weight loss programs, and stress management training. The Fit Plus Program supports the needs of employees age 50-plus that are beginning or maintaining a fitness program. The goal of the program is to get participants involved in exercise, and to encourage and develop healthy behaviors.

Scripps Health, an eight-time Best Employer, offers a number of health and wellness benefits to employees. Their comprehensive Return to Work program offers individualized managed care by an assigned on-site nurse case manager to employees returning to work after illness or injury. The Employee Care Clinic (ECC) is an on-site employee clinic for episodic care, providing cost-effective and high-quality care to employees returning to work and employees injured on the job. Furthermore, employees are offered flu shots, health screenings, health risk appraisals, smoking cessation programs, health club discounts, physical activity and weight loss programs, on-site massage, and stress management training. Seventy-one percent of Scripps employees utilized at least one of these wellness-related benefits during the past year.

West Virginia University, a two-time Best Employer, provides employees with benefits similar to Scripps Health. Additionally, employees have access to the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease, the Dr. Dean Ornish Spectrum Program (to make healthy, sustainable life changes), Dining with Diabetes, and the West Virginia Family Nutrition Program.

Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind, also a two-time Best Employer, hosts annual health fairs for its employees. The health fairs offer bone density tests, dental exams, blood pressure tests, support groups for various eye diseases and health conditions, nutrition classes, and a diabetes and hypertension prevention and management program.

Wellness initiatives are an effective way to address rising health care costs, gain a competitive edge in recruitment, and get employees to stay on the job longer. As companies have discovered, a few ounces of prevention can lead to healthier employees and a healthier bottom line.

To see what other AARP Best Employers for Workers Over 50 offer as to wellness programs, go to www.aarp.org/bestemployers.

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