Starting a wellness program can impact employees and your bottom line

Daniel Meracle, Employee Benefits Consultant and Wellness Adviser, Benefitdecisions, Inc.

Some employers have focused on employee wellness for years, but others aren’t convinced it is to their benefit to get on board. Companies may fear that creating a wellness program will be complicated or expensive, but it doesn’t have to be either. Simple steps such as setting up walking groups or offering annual biometric screenings can yield significant results in health and productivity, says Daniel Meracle, an Employee Benefits Consultant and Wellness Adviser with Benefitdecisions, Inc.

“If you haven’t started, now is the time,” says Meracle. “Creating wellness programs can be easy, inexpensive and have a major impact on employee satisfaction, productivity and benefits costs for most employers.”

Smart Business spoke with Meracle about how to set up an employee wellness program and measure its results.

Where does a business start when considering a wellness program?

Start small by familiarizing employees with their numbers — blood pressure, weight and cholesterol,  then address how to get those in line. Instill that employees are responsible for knowing and owning their numbers and their overall health. Base your program on your goals. Start with results from biometric screenings. If cholesterol and weight are issues in your population, start a walking program. Form teams, have them use pedometers and connect progress to a goal.

How can you set realistic goals?

Determining realistic goals starts with understanding overall health risks in the organization. Begin with a biometric screening. For your initial measurement, consider a full 35 panel blood draw. Most wellness service companies or insurance carriers that administer these programs will create a detailed report card of the demographics and health risks of the population. The report has no identifiers but gives an aggregate overview of the participants. Goals should be set to improve the results around a specific health risk or around participation in wellness activities. Companies often create an internal wellness committee to develop contests and tap into resources provided by their insurer or a local hospital.

How do you deal with employees’ privacy concerns standing in the way of participation?

Stress early and often that results of the tests are confidential. A general report for the organization doesn’t mention employees by name, department or other identifiers. Some people won’t trust the process and won’t participate. You’re not going to get everyone to participate, especially in the first year.  However, the longer a commitment to wellness exists within a company and becomes part of the culture, the more people who will participate.

How else can you motivate employees? 

Incentives are effective in driving participation. For example, charging $50 to $100 a month on top of health benefits for those who do not participate is a strong motivator. There are also benefit plan design changes to address prevalent health issues. For example, if your employee base has a high diabetes population, consider reducing copays on diabetes medications, providing an incentive for people to manage their illness through medications.

Environmental changes can help, as well. Offering healthier options in vending machines, making your facility smoke-free and changing smoking breaks to health breaks encourages employees to change their behaviors.

Should a company contract with outside vendors, or create a plan internally? 

You could do either. Start by going to your insurance carrier, which will likely have departments dedicated to wellness programs. Your broker will also be able to point you toward proper resources.

How do you communicate the goals of the program and get employees engaged? 

A successful wellness program starts at the top. Employees look at what their managers are doing and if they are participating. The best programs have a senior-level person as the program champion.

The program champion should outline the goals from a culture and wellness perspective. The goals should be specific about timetables and when progress will be measured.

Recruit people for a wellness committee who want to help develop a culture of wellness. Ideas usually bubble up immediately because these people are already involved in their health and wellness and are eager to teach others. Communicate ideas about wellness through multiple channels, for example, emails, posters, talks, contests, etc.

Set the expectation with employees that they don’t need to be marathon runners; simpler goals such as healthier food choices, establishing an exercise routine, getting preventive medical care or learning about stress management will have a positive impact on your health insurance costs. Employees will feel better, be more productive and live better lifestyles.

How do you assess the program’s effectiveness, and how often should you evaluate it?

The first year sets the baseline for measurements. Beginning in the second year, and annually thereafter, you should see progress toward the goals. Reset your goals annually. It is also critical to provide continuous communication to employees and senior management about the program’s progress so they stay engaged and realize the benefits of the program.

Show employees what’s in it for them, such as an incentive. Tie rewards to your specific culture, as every organization is different. Behavioral changes are hard, but if you start small and keep building, people will actively participate when they are ready for change. Over time, your company will see the measurable results of your wellness program in benefits costs, employee satisfaction and engagement scores and reduction in absenteeism.

Daniel Meracle is an Employee Benefits Consultant and Wellness Adviser with Benefitdecisions, Inc. Reach him at (312) 376-0433 or [email protected]

Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by Benefitdecisions, Inc.