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. Imagine an office where employees snack on fruits and nuts rather than candy bars, drink water instead of another can of soda, and 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? Perhaps it will be during the months and years to come.

There is little doubt that health and wellness are hot topics. Just turn on the television and watch reality shows about weight loss, or pick up a magazine and read the articles on wellness published recently in Time and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Or 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, and 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 don’t have a program at your business, why should you bother to install one now? If you do have a program, why should you aim to improve it as we continue to move through 2010? Well, plenty of research proves that healthier employees are more productive and actually cost you and your business less in total costs. 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 important and relevant questions. If the answer to any is yes, you’ll want to consider a wellness program.

The question you have to ask yourself, though, is why do you want to install a program?

There are no wrong answers, but if there is no why, the program will flounder. And if you and your executives don’t 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, which are often free online or cost between $5 and $25 per employee if performed in person, and biometric screenings, which cost between $50 and $150 per employee, 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.

“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 HRA, they 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 your employees

Because of the general complexity of HIPAA laws, you might be better off turning to an outside company to ensure that your wellness program remains in compliance.

“You may want to look at contracting out to a company after you assess your needs,” says JoAnn Shea, director of employee health, Tampa General Hospital. “You may even consider hiring a part-time wellness staff member or occupational health nurse to run the program.”

No matter your choice, 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.

“Make it accessible,” Shea says. “Get them to participate.”

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

“The key to participation is that you have to make it fun and you have to have incentives and prizes,” Shea says. “They don’t have to cost a lot of money. You just have to remember when you’re developing programs that everyone likes to win a prize.”

Monitor your results

The fruits of an effective wellness program will take 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 the culture changes.

Over time, 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 do know that wellness programs increase productivity, presenteeism and employee satisfaction,” Shea says.

The program might also 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’ll likely have to wait until at least the second year to see any real positive return.

“Most companies, if they just started, the minimum is two to three years before they start to see a change in their health care claims,” Shea says.

When that change starts to filter in, you’ll likely see the average wellness program will be worth about $3 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.

“A CEO needs to realize that it will affect their bottom line in a positive manner,” Shea says. “It will decrease their claims and employee injury, and it will increase employee satisfaction. Employees become more loyal to the company because they feel that the company cares about them.”