Encouraging health Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

As a result of the growing costs of health care, many employers have considered establishing wellness programs and initiatives aimed at promoting the health and well-being of their employees.

Employers realize healthier employees are often happier, more focused and motivated, and less stressed. All of this benefits the company by reducing health care costs, increasing productivity, lowering absenteeism and improving company morale.

In general, most Americans believe it is important to live healthier lifestyles, eat well, exercise often and not use tobacco products.

“If this is true, employers should find it easy to promote wellness programs within their company and motivate their employees to take advantage of such initiatives,” says Patty Starr, the senior director of health insurance and benefits for the Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE).

Smart Business spoke with Starr about wellness programs and how you can promote healthy living at your organization.

How can an employer effectively promote and communicate wellness initiatives?

It’s essential that employers demonstrate their support and engagement in the wellness initiatives they want to implement in order to encourage employee participation. Showing that health and well-being are important for everyone makes a strong statement.

Employers should also consider designating a wellness leader or champion in the company — someone that shows a high level of interest and involvement in promoting wellness. Forming a wellness committee, conducting an employee health needs survey, and developing wellness workplace policies and procedures are additional ways to effectively promote a healthy wellness program.

Lastly, the success of a wellness program depends on effective communication. Therefore, employers should adopt strategies to announce and explain the new programs and policies available to their employees to encourage engagement. This can include employee newsletters, e-mail notices, lunchroom notices and staff meetings.

What wellness programs motivate employees to start living healthier lifestyles?

Provide health screenings and flu vaccines on-site. Check with your insurance carrier and nonprofit agencies, such as the Chamber of Commerce, that may provide these services at a low cost. Providing these services on-site is not only convenient but also shows employees that you care about their health. Also, encourage employees to take health risk assessments (HRAs). The HRA is a questionnaire that provides an overall view of an individual’s health and is available through most health insurance carriers. Most of the time, employees will learn something about their health status and ways they can improve or maintain overall health.

Encourage participation in disease management programs that assist individuals with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma or pain conditions. Have information on these programs, which are available through many insurance carriers, available in the office.

Replace unhealthy snack foods from vending machines and the office with healthier choices. Promote health or fitness programs, such as a ‘Biggest Loser’ contest that promotes employees to motivate each other to meet their individual weight loss goals. Other programs may include walk or bike to work days, healthy lunch-and-learn education sessions or walking challenges. Provide work-site exercise classes or programs during lunch or before or after work, such as yoga, aerobics or kickboxing. Convenience and fun is the key when it comes to wellness programs and this fits the bill.

What should employers keep in mind when providing incentives to their employees?

Companies with wellness programs offer employees incentives as rewards to encourage participation and to reach different goals. When it comes to providing incentives, employers should consider the following best practices: offering a reward for completing a health risk assessment or health screening; offering a reward for completing follow-up activities to the assessment or screening; rewarding healthy behaviors like participating in a smoking cessation program, instead of rewarding health results, such as weight loss; and implementing a point system that is based on the list of wellness program offerings, giving employees opportunities to participate in activities that are appropriate for their specific interests and goals.

What legalities should employers be aware of when providing wellness incentives?

As stated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), using financial incentives, such as cash, premium discounts or modified co-payments or deductibles on achievement of specific goals, such as reducing weight to a certain level, is illegal discrimination based on health status. Employers should design their incentives to reward employee participation in programs and for positive health habits.

Specifically, wellness program rewards, coupled with the reward for other health programs that require satisfaction of a standard related to a health factor, should not exceed 20 percent of total cost of the employee’s (or the employee’s family) coverage. Other things an employer should keep in mind is that all employees should have the opportunity to qualify for a reward at least once a year, and that alternative standards should be accessible for participants with medical conditions that otherwise prevent them from reaching a goal and receiving a reward or for whom it is medically inadvisable to do so.