How an effective wellness program can benefit your employees and the company Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

It’s no secret that health care is a hot topic. But putting aside the politics of the issue, there are two things that can’t be argued: health care costs are constantly on the rise and people’s health is constantly on the decline.

An unhealthy work force is an unproductive work force. If your people aren’t as healthy as they can or should be, you’ll face absenteeism, decreased job performance and lower morale, just to name a few.

Luckily, there are ways to both lower health care costs and improve the health of your people: successful wellness programs.

“Companies have a great opportunity to impact their employees’ lives and really make a difference,” says Cecelia Wagoner, the executive director of Corporate & Community Health for WellStar Health System. “People spend a large amount of their time at work. A good wellness program can improve the quality of life for your employees and their families.”

Smart Business spoke with Wagoner about wellness programs, how to implement them and how to drive employee engagement.

What should an employer expect when starting a wellness program?

Expect a lot of hard work. Implementing a wellness program takes a lot of time, effort and commitment. Develop a solid plan so you’re ready every step of the way. Know exactly what you’re taking on, be prepared and have the right mindset. Wellness programs are more than just nice ways to help your employees; they are true business strategies, so adopt them as part of your culture.

Also, don’t expect an immediate return on investment. Improved morale and engagement could happen right away, but it will take time to see true results in terms of reduced absenteeism and health care costs. But stick with it — the ROI will come.

How do you develop a successful program?

First, make sure you have complete buy-in from all levels of senior management. You’ve got to walk the talk throughout the organization. Show your employees that the company cares about them and wants to help better their lives.

Once management is on board, identify a wellness coordinator or advocate who will own the program. Or, if your company is large enough, you can have a wellness team that will promote healthy living. Either way, you need a clear and consistent message.

Next, solicit employee feedback. Find out what is important to employees. What health risks are they worried about? What types of programs would interest them? Involve all employees, deal with all major health risks and offer choices.

You’ll also want to conduct health screenings and surveys as well as testing for things such as blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose and body weight. A Health Risk Appraisal (HRA), an assessment tool that looks at an individual’s family history, health status and lifestyle, should also be used. An HRA can identify the precursors associated with serious illness and quantify the probable impact for each individual. It also will tell you about the fitness levels of your employees.

If you want to get people to change, you must educate, motivate and give them the tools to meet their goals. Educating employees on the health risks they face and showing them how they can prevent those risks is a great beginning step.

What are the key components of a successful wellness program?

Again, you have to be consistent. You can’t encourage healthy eating and then have unhealthy food in the vending machine or at the cafeteria. Also, if you encourage exercise, but don’t show employees proper ways to do it or give them the time and flexibility to do it, they probably won’t. You have to commit to and support the programs you implement.

How do you drive employee engagement?

This should come from your wellness advocate or team. Employees need to feel a connection from their peers; they don’t want to feel like management is forcing them to eat differently or exercise more. Having an excited and engaged wellness champion will make it easier and more likely that people will get involved.

Also, you can offer incentives and rewards such as cash, time off, health-related cookbooks or exercise equipment, or even just acknowledgement in the company newsletter or lunch with the boss. You could even offer a health care premium incentive — lower your cholesterol or stop smoking and pay less for health care. Whatever you do, make sure the incentives are meaningful and valued by your employees.

How do you handle opposition?

Employees may be leery about sharing their health data or taking part in fitness activities. But if you have good wellness champions and show proof of the programs working, you can alleviate those fears. Employees will embrace a wellness program that challenges them both physically and mentally. Again, increased participation can be expected if you offer incentives. If that’s not enough, make sure the program is well organized and promoted so the employees are constantly aware of the wellness opportunities available to them. Focus on increasing awareness, supporting health management or personal change, and promoting healthy work climates.

How does developing such a program benefit a company?

It depends on your goals, but wellness programs have the potential to decrease absenteeism, reduce medical claims and improve employee productivity, recruitment and retention. All of those things are great and very important, but, bottom line, a wellness program is the right thing to do. Take care of your most valuable asset — your people.

Cecelia Wagoner is the executive director of Corporate & Community Health for WellStar Health System. Reach her at (770) 793-7181 or cecelia.wagoner@wellstar.org.