Workplace wellness programs, once seen as an optional benefit that was only available to employees of the largest companies, have now become the rule rather than the exception. According to the most recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 70 per cent of all employers offer some type of workplace wellness program, and an additional 8 per cent of companies plan to implement such a program within the next year. And the return on investment for such programs is consistently high: On average, employers see an ROI of $1.50 for every dollar spent on workplace wellness; for those initiatives related to chronic diseases, the ROI skyrockets to almost $4 for every dollar spent.
However, not everyone is convinced that the programs are benefiting individual health — or company bottom lines. According to one new report, outside of chronic disease management programs, many workplace wellness programs are actually increasing costs, thanks in large part to testing. Wellness programs often require certain biometric tests, such as cholesterol and blood sugar screenings, regardless of recommendations from doctors and public health agencies and patient’s individual risk factors. This not only increases costs, but can also create a culture of misunderstanding in which people believe that they are sicker or healthier than they really are.
For example, many programs test cholesterol, but some only test levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, ignoring readings for HDL, or “good,” cholesterol and triglycerides. HDL and triglycerides are actually more accurate determinants of heart disease, meaning that those people who are only tested for LDL cholesterol could be put on medication unnecessarily, or believe that their numbers are fine when they are unhealthy.
Still, because workplace wellness programs have shown some positive results in terms of getting people to exercise, lose weight, quit smoking, and manage chronic diseases like diabetes, they are likely to remain an important aspect of the health care delivery system, especially given the push toward more population-focused health care. Under this model, health care providers are being trained to follow guidelines and make recommendations for patients who have similar characteristics; for example, prescribing cholesterol lowering drugs to all patients who meet certain criteria and share specific risk factors. With that in mind, small businesses can improve the participation in their wellness programs and ensure their effectiveness by following a few best practices.
1. Ensure Programs Follow Best Practices
Many workplace wellness programs are “one size fits all,” but not all employees need every test and intervention. Choose a program that applies the principles of population-based health care and conducts screenings based on the individual’s risk factors. Following basic protocols from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force or a similar organization also ensure that only the most necessary tests are conducted, saving significant costs.
2. Improve Communication
One reason that many employee wellness programs fail to garner results is that many employees aren’t invested in the process. Often, they attend a screening appointment, receive their results, and in some cases, support in necessary lifestyle changes, but more often than not, the programs fade into the background until it’s time to renew health insurance plans. Consistent, meaningful communication related not only to one’s health, but also to the program itself — evaluations, results, wins, and educational programs — goes a long way toward maintaining engagement and keeping employee health on track.
3. Offer Incentives
Without the proper incentives, workplace wellness programs often feel like “just one more thing” that employees have to deal with. Study after study has shown that offering incentives, in the form of reduced health coverage premiums, discounted fitness memberships and classes, or even cash, increases both participation and results in workplace wellness programs.
4. Provide Trained Health Coaches
Research shows that people who have support when trying to make major changes to their health and behaviors are more successful than those who don’t. By providing trained health coaches to work with employees to offer advice and facilitate change, you’re more likely to see results. Coaches should be trained in overcoming resistance, positive reinforcement techniques, and given the tools necessary to communicate with employees to get and keep them on track.
5. Make Bold Changes
Finally, making big changes to the work environment, such as banning smoking on property or removing unhealthy snacks from the break room, show employees that you take health seriously and that you’re committed to improvement. By “walking the walk” and encouraging healthy behaviors, your wellness program has a greater likelihood of success.
While in some circles, the value of employee wellness programs may still be up for debate, there is some evidence that they are effective in improving employee health and reducing costs. To ensure that your efforts are valuable, keep the best practices in mind and make your investment really count.