By Ron Cornell
Feb. 21, 2013
More than 63 percent of American companies with at least three employees offer a wellness program to their employees. The aim is to get employees healthy by reducing preventable health problems like obesity and smoking. If employees get healthy, the company can lower its health care costs and the employees become more productive and miss fewer days of work.
Traditional wellness programs
Traditionally, wellness programs focused on changing behavior through education. Employees were given a risk assessment and/or biometric screenings and told about the risk level of their behaviors were and their number of health risks. These educational programs assumed that employees would respond if they were told they were unhealthy. Sometimes, these programs also provided employees with wellness newsletters or website portals where they could go to learn about the health risks and behaviors that negatively impacted their health.
Unfortunately, many of these education-based wellness programs failed to demonstrate meaningful Return on Investment (ROI). Employees didn’t like being told that they were risky and unhealthy and often tuned out these traditional wellness programs.
Current approaches to wellness
Many employers have abandoned the education-based approach in favor of one that focuses on motivating employees to change behaviors. Modern programs incorporate behavioral economics as well as gaming to engage employees in their health. Examples of new approaches to wellness include office competitions, financial incentives tied to biometric outcomes or behaviors, and coaching. For example, many companies now organize weight loss competitions at work and/or offer financial incentives of up to $500 for quitting smoking or losing weight.
Implementing a wellness program
When choosing what wellness program to implement, you should keep the following five factors in mind:
- Delivers verified behavior change: If the goal of your wellness program is to change behavior, make sure that your program delivers verified behavioral change. Behaviors that you would like your wellness program to change include: 1) portion of employees who smoke; 2) portion of employees who are obese/ morbidly obese; and 3) portion of employees missing days at work due to stress and other mental health issues. Get verification of the behavior change. For instance, if the vendor claims to deliver weight loss, then make sure there is a verification of the starting and ending weight of the participants in the program. If the vendor can’t demonstrate with data that their program delivers behavior change, then you should stay away.
- Positive ROI: Once you have decided what behaviors your wellness program will change, you should evaluate the anticipated ROI from the wellness program. Put a cost savings benefit to the behavior change. For instance, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) provides estimates for the cost of a pound lost. Check this out at: http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/dnpaocc/companyprofile.aspx. Evaluate the financial benefits of the program against the cost of providing the program to employees. Make sure that your program’s estimated financial benefits outweigh the program cost.
- Significant participation rates: Pick programs that will engage a significant portion of your employees. You will likely only have the time to implement a few programs a year so it’s best to pick those that appeal to a broad portion of your employee population. A good benchmark for participation is one-third of the high-risk group. So, if you are targeting weight loss and 40 percent of your employees are obese, you should aim to offer programs that appeal to at least one-third of those 40 percent (or 12 percent of your total population).
- Fun: Select programs that will resonate with your employees. You are asking your employees to give up their unhealthy habits and make positive changes to their behaviors. This is hard. Injecting a little fun into the programs can make a world of difference when it comes to whether people will start and, more importantly, will sustain the changes they make over a period of time. Everything from emails to brochures to the actual dynamics of the programs should incorporate energy and fun.
- Additional Company benefits: Additional company benefits from a wellness program include attracting and retaining staff, creating a culture where employees feel valued and health/productivity; and facilitating teamwork and collaboration at work.
When evaluating wellness programs, make sure you focus on outcomes as well as activities that are fun and deliver positive behavioral change in a ROI-positive way.
Ron Cornell is Director of Communications, Content & Social Media for HealthyWage, a health and wellness company that uses financial incentives to help employees lose weight while offering social and expert-based support, tools, resources and tracking technologies to address our nation’s obesity epidemic. He can be reached online at www.healthywage.com.