Wellness programs for employees aren’t new, but they are becoming more popular and their focus is changing.
According to the Rand Corporation, 80% of American companies with more than 1,000 employees offer a workplace health-and-wellness program. Joy Burton, regional senior well-being and engagement coach at Gallagher, an international insurance, risk management and consulting firm with Michigan offices, says that 54% of American employers offered well-being programs during 2018. Another 20% are planning to add them.
Wellness programs are separate from employee assistance programs, which have been offered for years to provide counseling and referral to outside resources for workers who need help with elder care, financial problems and other issues.
Wellness programs are intended to help workers improve their health, with the rationale that they will be more engaged and productive. Traditionally, wellness programs have focused on physical health — promoting better nutrition, walking and other exercise, weight reduction, and smoking cessation. Some companies also offered educational sessions about stress reduction, but the emphasis was usually on better physical health habits.
In recent years, this has shifted to a broader range of programs to enhance total well-being, including mental health. “It’s bigger than adding a walking path or biometric screenings,” says Burton.
“Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is interested in whole person health. Total health goes beyond just medical claims. There is a large increase in programming needs and a change in their nature,” says Cindy Bjorkquist, director of well-being management. Recent science-based research has shown the value of mindfulness for improving productivity, she says. In the past, the focus was stress management; now there are happiness classes that teach resilience, using neuroscience, Bjorkquist explains.
Recognizing, treating burnout
Employers claim that wellness programs can help employees better understand themselves and strengthen coping tactics.
Freudenberg Sealing Technologies, a global company that specializes in sealing technology and electric mobility, has multiple locations in Michigan. The corporation realized several years ago that some employees needed help in recognizing and treating signs of serious burnout. The program was inspired by Jason Kohn, a long-time Freudenberg global business and product development manager. After recovery from a serious psychological breakdown — the result of pushing himself too hard in all areas of life — he decided to focus on preventing similar problems for others at Freudenberg.
Some are amazed, he says, that people who are “high potential, in management” can experience burnout. “It doesn’t happen just to weak people; it can happen to anyone,” says Kohn.
“We tend to treat the symptoms, not the problem,” he claims, citing depression, joint pain and panic attacks as indicators of underlying burnout. Kohn became a champion and trainer for Freudenberg’s Personal Energy Protection program that uses a “holistic approach, demonstrating the link between the core, mind and body.” Kohn has a degree in mediation and coaching along with training as a burnout consultant.
The basic PEP program lasts one to two days and is designed to help employees understand “why we are the way we are and to understand that we have stress and how it affects mental behaviors and body symptoms. People never connected their symptoms to stress,” Kohn explains.
The seminar is intended to provide tools to help those who are doing well continue to thrive, as well as assistance for individuals with some symptoms of burnout or who have a serious condition. The program, which was developed with an outside consultant, is available on an ongoing basis and anyone can attend; some employees are referred by their managers. Employees learn how to gauge their overall condition and learn meditation and breathing exercises to reduce stress. One-on-one coaching is available for follow-up.
A PEP Leadership version provides the same information, but helps managers understand themselves and their staff in terms of behavioral changes and physical ailments. The intent is to help identify individuals at high risk of a serious problem and provide coping strategies or treatment to avoid escalation.
Human resources and other managers from varied industries seek to provide resources for employee self-awareness and resilience. They recognize that workplace issues, as well as situations outside of work, can cause stress and reduce productivity. These may include financial problems, so some employers are offering seminars or webinars about financial literacy. Carhartt helps employees pay off their own or their dependents’ student loans — a common stressor for those with college debt.
Effective wellness plans require careful planning
Experts say that a successful workforce well-being program depends on careful planning and implementation. The specific needs and interests of employees should be paramount. The physical environment of the workplace may be relevant, as well, since factory workers may not be able to easily leave the assembly line for classes.
Bjorkquist says that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan develops a three- to five-year wellness strategy with employer clients that offer well-being programs. Each company has an “on-site premium well-being coordinator” with a degree in a health-related field and experience in health promotion or counseling. This individual helps integrate the wellness program into the workplace, ensuring good communication.
Buy-in from management and, ideally, the CEO are critical. “Wellness needs to be part of the culture,” says Dr. Steven Aldana, CEO of WellSteps, in a MarketWatch article. WellSteps is a workplace wellness provider.
Employers need to make healthy behavior easier, he says. For example, instead of posting a list of calories for cafeteria offerings, Aldana says employers should switch to healthier menus.
Employers, regardless of their size or industry, now have multiple ways to provide wellness programs. Some handle it internally, typically through a human resources department. Others work with a wellness vendor or their health insurer and some use a combination of resources and tactics.
Carhartt, the international apparel manufacturer, began its “wellness journey” about 10 years ago, according to Danyetta Gray, senior benefits manager, using bio-metric screening and a health assessment questionnaire in partnership with Blue Cross. Carhartt began working with Vitality, a provider of web-based wellness programs, in 2014.
“We were doing a lot of things internally, but it was difficult to get participation and communication was also a challenge. Vitality provides a way to reach everyone and takes stress off of Human Resources,” says Gray.
Physical health to creative expression
With the transition from wellness to well-being, program topics have expanded to include a broader range of employee interests. “We want to develop an integrated strategy that helps employees become more engaged at work, at home and in the community,” says Burton of Gallagher.
Bjorkquist says that wellness offerings can include programs about journaling, de-cluttering, art therapy, breathing and mediation, as well as the more traditional walking and smoking cessation. “If you can rewire yourself to be more resilient, you can become more resilient to stress and work better in teams,” she says.
At Woodbridge, a global systems solution provider of integrated insulated foam systems with locations in Michigan, employees are encouraged to take advantage of annual preventive health visits, monthly health presentations via Skype, guest speakers, a step competition, and meditation programs. Participants can log their activities online.
Through Vitality, Carhartt offers monthly health-related webcasts, both live and archived, as well as lunch and learn programs targeted to the health risks prevalent at a particular work site. Each Carhartt facility has a walking path. Carhartt participants can engage in wellness challenges, create goals and track their results through the Vitality platform, says Gray. As members earn points, they can redeem them for fitness tracking devices, gift cards and more in the Vitality “mall.”
Encouraging employee involvement
Employee participation depends on the appeal of programs offered, their accessibility and the incentives offered to take advantage of them. Human resources staff members at Woodbridge report that 75% of employees use their wellness programs with annual participation increases.
To qualify for lower health care premiums, workers need to have an annual physical with a form signed by their physician, participate in at least one online program and complete an online health assessment. Smokers are required to complete a smoking cessation class.
At Gallagher, participating employees can earn gift cards, extra vacation time, or a trophy or other recognition for their performance in a wellness challenge.
Evaluation of wellness programs
Evaluating the impact of wellness programs is complex, foremost because changing health behavior isn’t easy and usually takes time. According to a Scientific American study conducted in March 2019, wellness programs don’t demonstrate a positive effect on employee well-being or health care expenditures during the first year.
Also, some studies indicate that healthier, physically active employees are more likely to embrace wellness programs — essentially continuing their good habits on the job — while workers who are less conscientious about a healthy lifestyle are less likely to participate. But companies with wellness programs of some duration, as well as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which offers such value-added programs for its group plans, claim that a majority of employees participate with positive results. Burton notes that a self-funded company can monitor changes in its health care claims as one measurement of the impact of a wellness program.
At Woodbridge, human resources staff members say that their wellness program, provided through Blue Cross, has reduced absenteeism, improved morale and lowered medical expenditures.
Gray at Carhartt says they have seen an uptick in employees’ use of preventive health programs since they began partnering with Blue Cross to improve workforce wellness. She says Carhartt receives feedback on their programs through general meetings with employees and surveys. “We engage with our associates, providing listening opportunities at different work sites,” she says.
Tracking the number of employee participants and their frequency of usage can provide a quantitative assessment of program acceptance. (Since wellness program data is aggregated for the workforce, individual employee privacy is maintained.) Digital recordkeeping makes it easier to monitor the number of employees who begin and complete program components, and how much change they achieve in physical activity levels, weight loss, and blood pressure.
Well-being programs are expected to continue their evolution and expansion, reflecting new technology and cultural shifts. “A culture of well-being can attract millennials,” says Bjorkquist. Gray anticipates change and growth since “We always want to offer things that are relevant to employees.”