How to create a culture that promotes healthier, happier employees Featured

4:55am EDT January 29, 2014
Liz Howe, Director of Business Development, Benefitdecisions, Inc. Liz Howe, Director of Business Development, Benefitdecisions, Inc.

For more information on wellness programs, contact Liz

Wellness in the workplace isn’t just implementing a program, it’s about establishing a culture of wellness that promotes healthier lifestyles, says Liz Howe, director of business development at Benefitdecisions, Inc. 
“It’s not something you try and then decide whether you maintain it. A good program requires a well thought out strategy and budget,” Howe says.

Smart Business spoke with Howe about simple steps businesses can take to create a culture of wellness, and how to structure a program that delivers results.

What’s involved in creating a culture of wellness?

There needs to be champions within the organization, including total buy-in at the C-suite level. Communication is very important — let employees know that the company cares about them, that the wellness program is not an attempt to figure out if they have any health problems but ensuring they are as healthy and fit as possible. 

As for the wellness program itself, it should function outside of your health insurance provider so it doesn’t need to change if you switch carriers. Programs should include biometrics screenings — basically a blood draw. Conduct screenings at the workplace to make it easy for employees to participate.

Are those screenings then used to develop programs and set goals?

The initial goal is for every employee to know their numbers — cholesterol levels, blood pressure and body mass index. That information alone provides ample motivation for most people to consider making behavior changes. Employees receive confidential ‘health’ report cards, and the employer gets an aggregated summary of the health conditions that exist within the organization. Based on that information, the employer can create targeted activities like walking, smoking cessation or targeted educational programs.

You could bring educational 
support in to the office — a nutritionist to host healthy cooking demonstrations, a fitness instructor to conduct stretching and yoga. The idea is to change behavior, and making it fun makes it easier. Furthermore, the same data can drive strategy related to the medical plan design;
if a company has a large percentage of diabetics and the health plan has a pharmacy co-pay for prescriptions, it might be less expensive for the employer to provide free insulin, thereby increasing Rx compliance and reducing emergency room visits.

Wellness programs work best when reasonable goals are set. Create a baseline by measuring unscheduled absenteeism and instances of disability claims before the program is rolled out. Tying activities to a competition or ‘gamifying’ the program can help get employees excited about participation and provides a secondary benefit of building higher-functioning teams. We have a walking competition, and everyone has a device that tracks steps and activity on treadmills, bikes, ellipticals, etc. This promotes friendly competition and team building, which links to engagement and creates more highly engaged employees. 
What other outcomes can companies expect from wellness programs?

Unscheduled absenteeism will be reduced, as well as short-term and long-term disability claims. Those alone will drive increased productivity. Some companies talk about reducing medical costs, but it’s difficult to build a business case that medical claims were prevented and therefore money was saved. But, with proper understanding about how a business works, wellness can be tied to productivity gains. The biometrics screening is the most meaningful part of the program. So many people don’t know their blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass numbers, partly because they don’t see a doctor unless they’re sick.

An effective way to ensure participation is to provide subsidies for health insurance. Giving someone a subsidy of $100 a month to take part in the wellness program is meaningful to them. The information they receive from the screening is powerful. Good things happen when people are made aware of
their health and what’s happening inside their bodies. Ultimately, they will start changing their behavior over time.
Liz Howe is Director of Business Development at Benefitdecisions, Inc. Reach her at (312) 376-0452 or
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