Employee wellness programs Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

Organizations that value and promote a healthy lifestyle may have an edge when it comes to attracting and retaining key people. In addition, their employees may be more alert and more productive.

“In these organizations, we also tend to see better employee morale, says Nancy Zimmerman, Well Workplace coordinator, AvMed Health Plans. “A healthy lifestyle impacts every part of the day-to-day work environment. Workplace wellness programs translate into fewer injuries, less human error and a more harmonious work environment.

“A good workplace wellness program will also help reduce stress, which has been called ‘the 21st century disease,’” she adds. “A large majority of workers complain that their job is stressful — a problem that affects all levels within an organization.”

Smart Business asked Zimmerman how wellness programs can contribute to a healthier work force and lower costs.

How does having a wellness program keep costs down?

For well over a decade, research has showed the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs. For every dollar spent on a corporate wellness program, the returns have been cost savings of between $2.30 and $10.10 in the areas of decreased absenteeism, fewer sick days, reduced workers’ comp claims, lowered health and insurance costs, and improvements to employee performance and productivity.

What types of wellness programs can be implemented?

A comprehensive wellness program involves all employees, deals with all major health risks, offers choices, targets both the employees and the worksite environment and provides periodic evaluation of its results. A comprehensive program emphasizes follow up and offers support for the employees.

Though many types of screenings can be done at the worksite, the most common is heart health. The screening should include blood pressure measurement, cholesterol/HDL-cholesterol, glucose (blood sugar) and body weight. Also, educational materials specific to diet, nutrition, exercise, cholesterol, smoking and weight management should be available. The health professionals conducting the screenings should provide consultation and help set individual goals with the participants.

A Health Risk Appraisal (HRA) should be used in conjunction with the health screening, which will ensure accuracy of the clinical answers. An HRA is a computerized or paper assessment tool, which looks at an individual's family history, health status and lifestyle. An HRA can identify precursors associated with serious illness and quantify the probable impact for each individual. It also provides recommendations and indicates what risks are modifiable. One of the big benefits of this tool is that it can provide aggregate group data of a company that can be used as an evaluation tool.

Once the aggregate data is assessed, implementation of programs can begin. For example, if the report reflected that 60 percent of employees are in a prehypertensive state, then follow up with blood-pressure-specific information and repeat screening is recommended, along with nutrition counseling.

Also, the HRA report will tell the employer about the fitness levels of their employees. If the levels are low, then that can contribute to risks for a number of illnesses. In that case, a walking program, adding a fitness center or membership or bringing a personal trainer to administer a fitness program would be recommended.

In general, how do employees react to wellness programs?

Most employees react well to the concept and take the screening and HRA feedback very seriously. The employees feel good that their organization is concerned about their general health and well-being.

Unfortunately, that’s where a majority of employees end their participation in wellness programs. That’s the challenge: to maintain their interest. Wellness is interesting because it is about a serious subject — a person’s health — yet, it is supposed to be fun. Most people react well to incentives, such as raffles. While many would rather have you raffle items such as a TV or cruise, offering prizes such as healthy items or gift certificates to healthy eating establishments will keep the focus on wellness.

There is a trend, though — call it a second wave of the wellness revolution: employers rewarding healthy employees who participate in wellness programs with lower premiums. The ‘if you don’t play, you pay’ theory is catching on around the country, mostly in larger employer groups.

How can top-level management encourage employees to take advantage of wellness programs?

It is imperative that all of this come from the top. The buy-in must be complete to be successful. This includes giving employees time off of work to participate in these programs. If upper management starts working on ways to make a healthier lifestyle easier to achieve for employees — and consider tying premiums to that healthier lifestyle — then there is a chance to have a happier, healthier work force.

NANCY ZIMMERMAN is Well Workplace coordinator, AvMedHealth Plans. Reach her at (904) 858-1302 or Nancy.Zimmerman@avmed.org.