A ‘healthy’ business Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

Most companies have a diverse employee population with myriad unique needs. This can be a challenge when choosing a benefits plan for a group of employees, since a 23-year-old male in his first job out of college is going to be looking for something much different than a 42-year-old mother of two.

However, one aspect of a benefits plan that can help all employees reach their personal optimal level of health is a comprehensive, innovative wellness program.

“Many employers are being proactive in trying to improve the health of their employees, to help both the employees personally and their business,” says Bill Berenson, vice president of sales and service for Aetna’s Small & Middle Market Business in the North Central Region. “Creating a wellness program that gives employees the information and resources to enhance their health and well-being is an important part of this process.”

Smart Business spoke with Berenson, who answered some basic questions about wellness programs.

What are some typical features or services offered in a wellness program?

A wide variety of services can be made available through a wellness program. Some of the most common include discounts on memberships at fitness clubs or home exercise equipment; weight loss or weight management programs; smoking-cessation programs; and discounts on alternative health care options such as herbal and natural remedies, vitamins and nutritional supplements, as well as massage and acupuncture therapy (these discounts are not considered insurance on their own, but are added features to many insurance plans).

In addition to these services, delivering the right information to employees is another essential feature of a wellness program. This could include personal wellness counseling from experienced health educators, such as registered nurses or dieticians, as well as Web sites with answers to common health-related questions employees may have about themselves or their families.

How should employees be informed about these programs?

Aside from these general information resources, it is important that employees be aware of programs that could be helpful to their individual, personal needs. This can be achieved by having employees complete an optional, secure health risk assessment.

After completing this assessment, employees can receive a personalized action plan that points them toward programs that are specifically relevant to them. This type of targeted outreach improves the likelihood of employees taking advantage of the services that are available to them.

What are some ways to encourage employ- ees to participate in these programs?

While improved health should be the primary motivation for participation in a well- ness program, offering incentives to employees is a common way of encouraging the use of these programs.

Incentives could include rewards (monetary or otherwise) for taking part in preventive screenings such as an annual well- person exam or receiving a flu shot; meeting general fitness thresholds as well as achieving specific goals set in a personal wellness plan; and participating in disease management programs, if applicable. A company that offers health savings accounts (HSAs) that help employees pay for qualified medical expenses also can offer to have any money earned through a wellness program deposited in that account.

How does the employer benefit from these programs?

By instituting and promoting these programs, employers can expect to have more control over health care costs. According to ‘Preventing Chronic Disease,’ a 2005 publication from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, physical inactivity and being overweight or obese are associated with 23 percent of health plan charges and 27 percent of national health care charges. Helping employees become healthier and more active will likely help reduce costs on health benefits claims, sick leave, disability and worker’s compensation.

In addition to the direct financial impact, employers should see improved productivity from employees that participate in these programs. While poor health habits (unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, high-stress, etc.) can lead to higher levels of employee absenteeism and lower levels of on-the-job productivity, in many cases, when employees improve their health, their overall performance improves as well.

Finally, if employees feel that their employer truly cares about their health and well-being, there should be an increase in both employee satisfaction and retention.

Between decreased health care costs, superior productivity and improved employee perception, a wellness program can not only help keep employees healthy — it can also improve the ‘health’ of an entire business.

BILL BERENSON is vice president of sales and service for Aetna’s Small & Middle Market Business in the North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or berensonw@aetna.com.