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, clicking off each step up and down the stairs and through the halls and around the cubicles. Imagine an office where employees snack on fruits and nuts rather than candy bars, where employees drink water instead of another can of soda, and where employees 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? It should be. Perhaps it will be during the months and years to come.

There is little doubt that health and wellness are, if nothing else, a hot topic across the nation. Just turn on the television and watch a reality show about weight loss or any of what seems like a dozen syndicated talk shows where a photogenic doctor fields questions and concerns. Or pick up a magazine and read the features on wellness recently published in Time and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Or just 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 or even move nearly enough. We are in the dregs of a pandemic. All of 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.

“A wellness strategy is really a subset of a human capital strategy,” says Paul Martino, vice president, health and wellness solutions, WellPoint Inc. “I think if an employer has a long-term horizon and views human capital in a particular way — that it is valuable, that you want to retain your highly valuable and efficient people — you want to allow people to be at their job and functioning well.”

If you do not have a program up and running, pun intended, at your business, why should you bother to install one now? Or if you do have a program, why should you aim to improve it as we continue to move through 2010? Well, because plenty of research proves that healthier employees are more productive and actually cost you and your business less in total costs. Oh, 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 all important and relevant questions, and if the answer to any is yes, you will want to consider a wellness program.

But why do you want to install a wellness program?

There are no wrong answers, of course, but if there is no why, if there is no vision, the program will flounder. And if you and your executives do not 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.

“It’s important to step back and gather some data from the employees,” says Laura Poland, executive director, The Rite Bite. “Completing health risk appraisals with employees, and (finding) out what their health risks are and what’s going on in the workplace, that can reveal specific areas of interest that an organization should pursue.”

HRAs and biometric screenings 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.

HRAs are often free, though if performed in person rather than on the Internet, they can cost between $5 and $25 per employee, depending on the quality and depth of the analysis. Biometric screenings typically cost anywhere between $50 and $150 per employee. You might also need to offer your employees an incentive, like a gift card or cash, for them to give their time to take the tests — because anything less than 70 to 80 percent participation leaves the results skewed and of less use for your business.

That cost might seem steep, but the information that is revealed can change your business. Do you want to know the overall health risk for your employees? Their weight and body mass index? Their exercise, nutrition and smoking habits? Even their levels of stress at work and at home? All those figures are available and can help lay the groundwork for what you need to know to start a wellness program.

Consider an outside company — and your employees

When you have the results of the HRAs and screenings, you’ll want to work with your insurance company to perform an annual claims review. At that point, you’ll be able to plan for the installation of a wellness program.

But you might not want to keep that plan under your own roof.

Because of compliance regulations and the general complexity of HIPAA laws, you might be better off turning to an outside company to ensure that your burgeoning program remains legal. After all, you already work with a law firm to handle your legal matters, an accounting firm to handle your numbers and a bank to keep everything in order, so why not work with professionals when it comes to the literal health of your business?

“You can use a combination of a third party coming in, but you still have to have representation throughout the business,” Poland says. “HR is actually a good partner in these programs, because they do have knowledge of everyone’s job in the business — they should be a big part of it.”

No matter your choice on that matter, your employees do need to feel a sense of inclusion in, 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 when the program is prepared to launch, make sure you pass along that information well in advance.

“Employees are always thinking, ‘What’s in it for me? What is the benefit for me?’” Poland says. “You need to communicate that as part of any program you do, and you have to have good marketing behind anything you do. Be good about marketing to get the programs across.”

The key to increased participation is to offer an incentive, especially now as we continue to recover from 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.

Monitor results and look forward

The fruits of an effective wellness program will take some time to develop and spread throughout your business. Just remember, when you start to work out or return to the gym, you don’t see a noticeable difference after one day or even after one week or one month. A wellness program is a lot like that trip to gym. Give it a couple of months to notice the first signs of change, a year to really see an improvement and a couple of years to watch as new habits spread from employee to employee.

Those new habits, of course, are part of the return on your investment. There are other intangible returns, too, including employee reports that they feel better and look better and now have a success story to tell their friends and family. But without hard numbers, all of those intangibles are nothing more than what one expert referred to as “warm fuzzies.”

Good thing a wellness program is far more than warm fuzzies. After a couple of months or a year or two, you can measure the collective pounds lost, the drop in body mass index, 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.

“Where all the cost is in the system is for people who are at risk for either a chronic illness or acute episodes,” Martino says. “Those are the people who cost all the money, so if you point programs at them, it’s much easier to get a return on the investment. If you look at people who are your working well, generally about 80 percent of the population, those are the people who, because they aren’t sick and don’t have as high a risk for illness, they naturally have lower costs.

“It’s harder to get a return on a program that is intended to serve the entire population. The working well, if they’re not managing their health correctly, will end up in one of the other groups. People who are moving toward more sedentary lifestyles as they get older, those things will lead to the chronic and acute problems.”

And there are the dollar figures for the return on your investment. Those are as important as any number on any scale.

Similar to those first trips to the gym and those first months of the program, you should not expect to see any sort of large return during the first year or so. The program might 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 will likely have to wait until the second year, perhaps even early during the third year to see any real positive return.

“Some recent studies show that it takes two to three years to change the culture and to see solid results,” Poland says. “They also show that for every dollar invested, that nets about $3.50 in return per employee. Now, that is two or three years down the road.”

When that change starts to filter in, you might be surprised at what you see. Over time, the average wellness program will be worth about $3 toward your bottom line 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.

“If you believe in the value of your human capital and you want to keep the people who are healthy now healthy in the future, then keep them engaged,” Martino says. “Keep them happy at work.”