Wellness Programs 101

As awareness of the direct link between unhealthy behaviors and increased health care costs continues to grow, a greater understanding of and appreciation for the value of a sophisticated corporate wellness initiative is motivating many firms to reassess their wellness strategies. Sobering information, such as the fact that 90 percent of heart disease and 66 percent of serious illness is preventable, has reinforced the idea that workforce well-being is of paramount importance, and that thoughtful steps taken to address this serious issue can achieve sometimes dramatic positive results.

Companies are recognizing that health and wellness programs can not only improve the health, fitness and overall quality of life of their employees, but also realize potentially significant savings in terms of lower health care costs, reduced sick leave and absenteeism, and minimized productivity lags (“presenteeism”).

The fundamental problem with most wellness programs is that they frequently only reach those individuals who would participate anyway-”the healthy and relatively active 10 percent of employees who are already making smarter lifestyle choices. Whether you are improving an existing program or considering implementing a new one, the goal should be to overcome that inherent handicap and design a wellness and coaching program that reaches the more than 50 percent of the population that typically do not care about health or wellness.

Identify your Call to Action
Human resources and senior leadership should collaborate to define the short- and long-term goals and objectives for the program that you hope to achieve. It is equally important to identify the value proposition (example: “Engage 70 percent of the eligible population within three years, improve overall health status, drive risk mitigation, reduce medical expenses, improve absenteeism”) and set clear guidelines to determine how you will measure results and define success.

Define Scope of Wellness Program
The next preliminary step is to define the precise scope of the program, taking care to address issues such as the anticipated time investment and considering how your program might dovetail with existing and pending Congressional legislation.

Awareness and Early Detection
Awareness and early detection need to be priorities. Helping employees understand their health status and increasing overall awareness of potential health risks is an important first step in improving company-wide health and productivity. Newsletters, research portals, webcasts, and other communication tools can be invaluable.

Ultimately, to build a successful program, it is important to understand the needs of your employees from both a demographic and lifestyle perspective. Analyzing population demographics and evaluating previous medical/pharmacy/disability claims experience, if available, can help you get a better handle on your employees’ health risks and cost drivers. A “Lifestyle Management” survey can yield important insights, and conducting focus group sessions through a third party can be an effective grassroots method to better understand employee needs, issues and concerns. This is also a great way to reinforce the message that management has a genuine interest in the employee health and welfare.

Implement Based on that Information
Now that you know your target audience and have assessed your firm’s overall ‘Well Readiness,’ implement program elements based on that information. Crafting the right messaging and implementing effective branding is critically important. Stress personal responsibility and employee empowerment, and deliver new information in actionable and digestible pieces. The right balance of carrot versus stick incentives and disincentives can work wonders, and things like ‘hands-on’ coaching sessions (healthy eating, healthy weight challenges, etc.) can act as effective motivators to modify unhealthy behaviors. Minimizing lag time between employee participation and the delivery of the incentive can help generate momentum and achieve higher success rates. Where possible, integrate the employees’ families into the process to help keep participation levels high and reinforce the notion that the program represents a comprehensive lifestyle change.

Build Momentum with Advocates/Cheerleaders
Capitalize upon “teachable moments” and leverage success stories to foster peer support and create a positive atmosphere of support and encouragement. Motivating by example with before/after stories is a great way to inspire employees, and successful advocates can participate on an internal wellness committee to help keep lines of communication open.

Study the Numbers
Track and measure your improvements. Hold yourself and your program accountable, and determine what has and has not worked by comparing results against initial goals. Thoughtful analysis can help reveal important information such as how program participation correlates with health outcomes, what are incentive costs, and how does program participation affect health plan or disease management programs and choices?

Finally, check the “pulse” of the program by implementing regular periodic surveys and focus groups. Consistency is important, but a willingness to be responsive to employees and make necessary changes not only improves program effectiveness, but creates a greater sense of trust and loyalty among employees.

Ultimately, one size does not fit all; you need to determine what kind of program fits your company and meets the needs of your employees. The bottom line is that grassroots efforts to build and manage effective wellness programs are vitally important; making an effort and taking the time to truly understand what employees want and need can make the difference between a successful wellness program and a failure.

Mary Jo LeFevre, CEBS, serves as account executive with Birmingham-based AGIS, a full-service employee benefits firm offering wellness programs, training and support. AGIS is a 2009 winner of Metro Detroit’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. She is an active member of the Human Resources Society of Greater Detroit and can be reached at [email protected].

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.