Creating a wellness program Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

Imagine an office where employees walk laps during lunch, their pedometers clipped to their waistbands. Imagine an office where employees snack on fruits and nuts rather than candy bars, drink water instead of another can of soda, and have managed to kick that pack-a-day habit.

Imagine an office where health and wellness are a priority.

Is this anything like your office? Perhaps it will be during the months and years to come.

There is little doubt that health and wellness are hot topics. Just turn on the television and watch reality shows about weight loss, or pick up a magazine and read the articles on wellness published recently in Time and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Or turn your eyes to Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama signed the health care reform legislation in late March.

Our parents are overweight. Our children are overweight. We are overweight. And as we work our way through the recession, our days are packed. We tend to eat poorly and not exercise, and our poor decisions are costing not only our bodies and our minds but also our health care costs and our office productivity. A wellness program just might help to turn the overwhelming tide of fat and frustration.

“Wellness is infectious,” says Staycee A. Benjamin, manager of wellness and health promotion, Kaiser Permanente of Georgia. “Once you come into a company and you get a certain percentage of the employees on board, people start to notice, and they see people doing better. Eventually, they will come around and want to be a part of it in some fashion.”

If you don’t have a program at your business, why should you bother to install one now? If you do have a program, why should you aim to improve it as we continue to move through 2010? Well, plenty of research proves that healthier employees are more productive and actually cost you and your business less in total costs. And there is an impressive return on the investment, especially after a year or two.

But you have to plan and install the program first.

Take the first step

Are your employees overweight? Are they obese? Do they smoke? Not long ago, you would have been well within your rights to avoid the answers to any of those questions. If your employees worked hard and produced, who cared about their health? But after years of medical research, those are important and relevant questions. If the answer to any is yes, you’ll want to consider a wellness program.

The question you have to ask yourself, though, is why do you want to install a program?

There are no wrong answers, but if there is no why, the program will flounder. And if you and your executives don’t support the program from its first breath, neither will your employees. So take the time to work with a private company for you and your employees to take a health risk assessment and a biometric screening.

“We can take that data and work with the company to see what their internal culture is,” Benjamin says. “One of the most important things we need so we can come in and provide a successful and comprehensive wellness program is their buy-in, particularly from leadership, and for them to adopt a culture of wellness.”

HRAs, which are often free online or cost between $5 and $25 per employee if performed in person, and biometric screenings, which cost between $50 and $150 per employee, highlight symptoms and conditions that might develop into larger problems in the future, both among individuals and your employee base as a whole. If you work with an outside company, the information will also be anonymous and in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“We do an online self-reported health risk assessment and they can opt to share that information with their doctor,” Benjamin says. “We don’t even have to have anybody’s name or identification to pull particular information, like claims data or a variety of reports, about a particular company.”

Consider your employees

Because of the general complexity of HIPAA laws, you might be better off turning to an outside company to ensure that your wellness program remains in compliance.

“When we develop a company wellness program, there are two basic options we look at,” says Renzie Richardson, CEO, Be Healthy for Life LLC. “Companies can either use an outside vendor or decide they want to do it themselves internally. They will probably want to work with a consultant either way.”

No matter your choice on that matter, your employees do need to feel a sense of inclusion in —and perhaps even some sliver of ownership of — the program, so involve them as early as possible. Tell them about the program as you develop it, and if you build a wellness planning committee, make sure you bring in people from as many departments as possible and allow them to participate.

The key to increased participation is to offer incentives, especially now as we continue to recover from the recession and every little bonus bears the glint of gold. Perhaps your employees would react to paid time off or reduced premium costs. Both are common incentives, according to a panel of more than two dozen industry experts.

“A lot of companies are now offering incentives,” Benjamin says. “Sometimes people need those incentives to even look at their own health.”

Monitor your results

The fruits of an effective wellness program will take time to develop and spread throughout your business. Give it a couple months to notice the first signs of change, a year to really see an improvement and a couple years to watch as the culture changes.

Over time, you can measure the collective pounds lost and the decrease in cholesterol and blood pressure levels. You can also measure the decreased rate of absenteeism because of injury or illness, improved productivity, and perhaps even lower figures for workers’ compensation claims and turnover rate.

The program might also pay for itself during that first year — thanks to employees being able to work more hours and to a possible decrease in health care costs — but you’ll likely have to wait until at least the second year to see any real positive return.

“Generally, it takes about 18 months from the launch of a wellness program to see the health care bottom line change,” Richardson says. “That is the average point at which workers start to improve their health and they start to cancel out some of those costs.”

When that change starts to filter in, you’ll likely see the average wellness program will be worth about $3 for every $1 you invest. Some experts say you can expect more than that — $5, $6 or even $8 for every $1 you invest. But $3 is a fair figure on which most experts agree.

“Employers need to know that healthy employees are good for business,” Richardson says. “Sometimes, an employer can see their rising costs of health care but feel handcuffed and say they can’t do anything about it. I like to tell employers this is a strategic investment, and it will at least slow down the rise of health care costs.

“It just makes good sense to invest in a wellness program.”