Keeping employees healthy Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

This year, 75 percent of employers nationwide are offering wellness programs to their employees, according to a national survey by The Hay Group. The number continues to grow because wellness programs are both good for health and good for business. Numerous studies show they improve productivity, provide solid return on investment and are popular with employees.

The degree to which companies attain these benefits depends on the program and how it is managed. Smart Business spoke with Sally Stephens, RN, president of Spectrum Health Systems, for tips on successful program design and management.

What does a workplace wellness program entail?

In its simplest form, workplace wellness can be viewed as having two key focuses: organizational wellness and personal wellness. Organizational wellness involves managing business functions and employee well-being to allow the organization to be more resilient to environmental pressures. Personal wellness involves managing psychological and physical issues in response to environmental stress, including work environment.

Workplace wellness covers a broad range of different types of programs and services — from offering flu shots to designing benefit plans that incorporate comprehensive health risk and demand management strategies.

Do companies make common mistakes in implementing wellness programs?

One of the most common mistakes is when companies take a reactive approach. Detection and prevention activities allow the company to focus on identifying health concerns and issues before they become problematic.

Prior to the implementation of a wellness program, it is important to collect baseline data for the outcomes measurements. Having the wellness program aligned with and part of the corporate business strategy will ensure its effectiveness. The program must have short-term, mid-term and long-term goals to demonstrate sustainable value.

Organizations should approach health as an investment rather than a cost. The organization must be willing to provide a receptive environment and support for positive health and well-being.

How do employees and companies benefit from the program?

From a management perspective, wellness programs have the potential to decrease absenteeism, reduce medical claims, and improve employee productivity, recruitment and retention. For maximum impact on employee health, a comprehensive wellness program should focus on increasing awareness, supporting health management or personal change, and promoting healthy work climates.

Several researchers have studied the impact of exercise on job performance. NASA, for example, found that the productivity of non-exercising office workers decreased 50 percent during the final two hours of the work day, while exercisers worked at full efficiency all day.

This amounts to a 12.5 percent difference in productivity between the two groups.

Are wellness programs cost-effective?

Research studies consistently conclude that employee wellness programs based on sound design strategies can reduce health risk in most employee populations and result in significant economic benefits to the organization. Research also shows that the magnitude of the results is positively impacted by the extent of the programming. Barring unforeseen external events, an employer can realistically expect a cost-benefit result of 1:2 to 1:6.7 or higher.

A review of corporate wellness programs conducted by Goetzel et al. reported that comprehensive disease management programs yielded the highest return on investment. Their findings suggest the need for health education, early detection, and appropriate interventions and health programs to maximize returns from investments in wellness programs.

What tips do you have for companies that want to start a program?

  • Secure the support of top management.

  • Appoint a wellness team to oversee the efforts.

  • Collect some form of data through assessments, screenings, etc.

  • Create a simple plan and set simple goals.

  • Choose the appropriate interventions.

  • Create a supportive environment.

  • Carefully evaluate outcomes.

SALLY STEPHENS is the founder, owner and president of Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at (317) 573-7600 or