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 program is important to address the rising trend in health care costs,” says Dr. Jill Sumfest, market medical officer for Central and Southern Florida, Humana. “There are always the instances where someone has a catastrophic illness, and you have to deal with that when it happens, but if we can just keep healthy people healthy and improve the health of those who have chronic illnesses, we can help to reduce costs.”

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.

“That information is so valuable because it identifies people who may be at risk even before they start to accrue claims,” Sumfest says.

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.

“We take the responses and use them to develop a model to identify people who would benefit from the program,” Sumfest says. “And the nice thing about taking it online is, at the completion of the health risk assessment, those individuals will actually receive a profile that will give them their overall health score and offer programs that might benefit them depending on their responses.”

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 should have someone from your human resources department, and I would advise you interviewing a bunch of wellness companies, which you really can access on the Web pretty well — who is out there, who does wellness — and seeing if they fulfill the needs that you’re looking for,” says Dr. Steven Schnur, CEO, EliteHealth.MD LLC. “You need to determine what your budget is per person and whether you want to do executive wellness, as well.”

No matter your choice on that matter, your employees do need to feel a sense of inclusion in —and 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.

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. Some businesses opt for duffel bags and water bottles for their employees to take to the gym or larger incentive prizes like a raffle.

“We try and talk with the employer about giving incentives to the employee,” Schnur says. “If they do take part in the wellness exams, we will work on incentives, employer-driven incentive programs, such as gift certificates. For the one employee who performs the best or follows the program, a gym membership. Some pay 50 percent of their health care benefits, some pay a little more, so there are different ways of incentivizing.”

Monitor results and look forward

The fruits of an effective wellness program will take some time to develop and spread throughout your business. 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.

“We monitor sick time off, we look at medical leaves, we try and do some through our surveys we do beforehand by repeating surveys after a year, seeing if they feel less stress at work, more camaraderie, more loyalty, less loyalty,” Schnur says. “We do a lot of survey follow-ups, as well.”

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.

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, especially if your employees buy in.

“If you look at three behaviors — smoking, your diet and lack of exercise — those are responsible for about 40 percent of premature deaths in the United States; they contribute to about 70 percent of chronic diseases and they account for 75 percent of health care costs,” Sumfest says. “So if you can get people to stop smoking, if you can get them to eat better and if you can get them to increase their activity level, you can help reduce your health care costs.

“Those are the biggest things to attack.”