AKR health 0608 Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Wedding and birthday toasts always include wishes for a long and healthy life. For businesses that run employee wellness programs, there are other benefits in addition to longer, healthier lives for executives and employees. These benefits accrue both to the business and to the worker, as long as the company’s executives move the program in the right direction.

Phyllis Marino, senior vice president for the Akron General Health System, says there are multiple benefits to programs that keep workers fit and healthy. She emphasizes the hidden payoff of keeping employees fit, healthy and ready to work, as opposed to the lost time and productivity caused by sickness and the resulting absenteeism.

Smart Business spoke with Marino about employee wellness programs, what employers should look for in them and how they can enhance business.

Other than better health, what are some typical benefits one would expect from a wellness program?

Wellness programs offer many benefits for the companies that offer them. If you analyze the U. S. health care system today, providers get paid for taking care of people when they are sick in some way. It’s not really health care; it’s sick care. As a nation, we have become dependent on our employers — through our health care providers — to fix us when we’re better, and many of us don’t take care of ourselves like we should. At Akron General, we believe in what we call ‘well care.’ We believe that in the long run, it is less expensive to keep people healthy than to pay to cure them after long illnesses or chronic diseases. So if companies were to spend their dollars with wellness programs, it will eventually decrease their overall costs.

The general rule of thumb is that a company saves $3 for every $1 spent on a wellness program. In addition to the cost benefits, companies that offer wellness programs have employees with better morale and lower absenteeism because healthy employees are more productive, engaged and creative. Because these programs are viewed positively as an employee benefit, companies offering these programs have a more engaged work force.

What sort of payback and savings come from wellness programs?

The length of the payback period differs from company to company. Much of the payback period depends on how many employees are at risk for serious health issues, such as chronic diseases. Not a lot of data are available, but some companies can see results in one year. For many people, simply beginning an exercise program can start to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Of course, dietary changes can also do the same thing.

A few astute insurers are beginning to offer cost savings to employers who offer wellness benefits. What generally happens, however, is that insurers are more likely to offer their own wellness programs — such as smoking cessation or lifestyle coaching — instead of offering discounts to companies that provide their own wellness services. One of the most common programs is assistance with smoking cessation. Companies with more employees who are at risk for greater occurrence of chronic diseases would probably see the most savings.

How does a business assure a reduction in health insurance costs from its provider?

At this point in time, few insurers offer such assurances. However, the trend toward this movement is gathering steam. Certainly, the long-term viability of consumer-directed health plans will mandate that people become more responsible for keeping themselves healthy. Companies that work with reasonable insurance providers should be able to negotiate good faith reductions with them. It really is a matter of collaboration. Insurers will opt for working toward the greater good. Even though a company may not receive a discount on insurance premiums yet, the day will come. And we still have many reasons to offer wellness programs — a more engaged work force, lower absenteeism, increased production. The cost benefits of better health will prove themselves.

Do wellness programs make workers less injury prone on the job, as well?

All people gain alertness when they engage in a regular exercise program. A higher degree of alertness would translate into fewer injuries.

Is there a particular area — exercise, smoking cessation — that pays off best?

Not really. It’s often easier for companies to begin with smoking cessation, however, due to the assistance provided by insurers. Some companies begin with fitness programs; others begin with a complete health risk assessment. Research shows that 25 percent of Americans lead sedentary lives and that is particularly true of people who have desk jobs. Any program that gets them on their feet and active will help throughout their lives.

PHYLLIS MARINO is the senior vice president of marketing and public relations for the Akron General Health System. Reach her at pmarino@agmc.org.