How to use wellness programs to improve your employees’ health and productivity Featured

7:01pm EDT November 30, 2011
How to use wellness programs to improve your employees’ health and productivity

Most employers know that having healthy employees can help lower health care costs, but a healthy population can have far greater benefits for your company.

Those benefits can be so great that some employers are not only encouraging healthy behaviors, they are demanding them as a condition of employment, says Michael F. Campbell, chief wellness officer at Neace Lukens.

“There is a general consensus that health care costs are driving the wellness movement,” says Campbell. “But a recent study revealed that the benefits in improved productivity and presenteeism from wellness programs were financially a far greater advantage than the decrease in health care costs. Lost productivity due to poor health, chronic conditions and poor lifestyle created a far greater impact.”

Smart Business spoke with Campbell about steps you can take to improve the health — and productivity — of your employees.

If an employer wants its employees to be healthier, where does it start?

You have to start at the top. If the leader of the company is unwilling to lead in this endeavor as they would lead in their business endeavors, it will fail. That’s the only way you are going to have an impact on the culture.

For example, our CEO decided two years ago that something had to change. He began to change his lifestyle, his activities, his eating and drinking habits, and began communicating those changes to the employees.

You may get a lot of negative feedback from the population when you’re requiring people to do certain things, but if the leader is saying, ‘Look, face it, this is here to stay,’ having that repetitious message in place makes a big difference. At companies of all sizes, the ones that succeed with wellness programs are the ones in which the leader steps up to the plate and becomes a living example of what they’re asking people to do.

What kinds of things can employers incorporate into wellness programs?

You can encourage people to get annual physicals, whether they are covered on your health plan or not. If everyone is not on the health plan, don’t attach incentives to the plan because you are after your entire population.

You can also ask employees to participate in a nutrition program. That doesn’t mean telling them how to eat; it simply means that they have to participate in an assessment that will tell them what their nutrition prescription is. You can also persuade everyone to participate in quarterly seminars on nutrition.

For example, we are going to support the program for employees to use pedometers. That doesn’t mean they have to walk a certain number of steps each day, not yet, but they do have to wear them. We suggest a goal and tell them what the recommendations are. It’s very unobtrusive and we simply say to them, we need you to wear this.

This approach is not an outcomes-based program yet; it’s a participation-based approach.

How can employers overcome employee resistance?

Take, for example, a hospital that wanted to implement a tobacco-free workplace policy. It announced it was going to charge those who did not kick the habit, and it did a very poor job of rolling it out, a very poor job of communicating, a very poor job of educating people, and the turnaround time from announcement to quit date was way too short. As a result, it had a rebellion.

Compare that with employers who have done it correctly. They start 18 months in advance, they make a case for the initiative, they explain to employees why they are so interested in making it happen, and the pros and cons of the program. And they say to employees, way in advance, ‘Get ready. The day is coming when we are going to issue a policy that you will not be able to use tobacco on the premises, at any time. We’re not going to do this for a year and a half yet, and in the meantime, for those who do use tobacco, we have this incredible program that we’re going to bring to the table to help you quit.’

Employers who do that have no problems. Nobody quits, there is no rebellion; it just happens. But if you wait until the objections come, and you don’t answer all of their questions ahead of time and explain thoroughly why you’re doing this, you’re going to have problems.

What would you say to employers who say they can’t afford the investment into wellness?

Think of it along the lines of safety. If you ask a factory manager what kind of money that person is investing in safety programs, it’s amazing relative to the amount of money that’s involved in that area. It’s so incredibly disproportionate to health care cost. There are signs all over the place, and everyone knows what they should and shouldn’t be doing when it comes to safety.

But when it comes to health plan costs, which are astronomical when compared to their exposure financially, what are they doing there? There is a huge value to the investment for wellness.

Some employers may also think that the health of their employees is none of their business.

Yes, it is your business. And you’d better make it your business, or you are going to be out of business.

Michael F. Campbell is chief wellness officer at Neace Lukens. Reach him at (317) 595-7349 or mike.campbell@neacelukens.com.