Improving performance Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

As health care costs continue to rise, employers are searching for progressive strategies to improve the performance of their health plans.

One way to do that is with a worksite wellness program, which uses a variety of methods and incentives to reward employees for making healthy lifestyle choices. Incentives are typically activity-based, rewarding participants for doing things such as completing a health screening, and employers are now recognizing that they can gain tremendous savings by implementing a well-designed, achievement-based wellness program.

“Achievement-based programs create a win-win situation for employers, employees and their families,” says Sally Stephens, president of Spectrum Health Systems. “These incentive models, if well executed and managed, are financially beneficial to all stakeholders.”

Smart Business spoke with Stephens about how implementing a results-driven approach to wellness can benefit your company.

What types of wellness programs are available to employers?

The types of wellness program services are vast, so an employer has much to consider when deciding to implement a program. Some are more effective than others in changing behavior and reducing the overall risk profile of the organization.

It is increasingly evident that the most effective wellness programs are the ones that reward employees for meeting or achieving certain health goals.

One such strategy is a bona fide wellness program. Employers are adopting this approach at an increasing rate largely due to the associated results.

What is a bona fide wellness program?

Generally speaking, a bona fide wellness program must offer some type of discount or limited reward. They must be in place to promote overall good health, as well as disease prevention.

Some bona fide wellness programs may offer a reduced premium to participants who achieve a certain goal, such as low cholesterol or weight. The rewards must be available to all employees who are in similar situations.

If it is not feasible for a participant to reach a certain health standard, an alternative must be created and implemented. Alternatives typically consist of various health improvement programs to be chosen by the participant.

What issues do companies need to consider before creating a wellness program?

As employers seek to achieve measurable results and communicate a greater level of accountability to employees, achievement-based rewards are receiving greater consideration. Employers adopting this approach need to be aware of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines that are specific as to what is allowable in a bona fide wellness program.

Why should companies consider implementing a wellness program?

A successful wellness program benefits an employer in many ways. Within a few years of implementation, the most effective ones reduce the rate of health care cost increases, as well as costs for disabilities and workers’ compensation programs. In addition, well-designed programs help reduce absences and presenteeism and increase productivity.

Research has shown that the healthiest workers are nearly three times more productive than the least healthy. Other benefits include improved workplace safety and employee morale.

The underlying philosophy is that health risk factors such as nutrition, weight control, exercise, cholesterol, blood pressure, safety and mental well-being are strongly influenced by an individual’s lifestyle practices and contribute to the incidence of preventable illnesses.

What kinds of results can be expected?

The best way to illustrate results is through a case study. American Structurepoint Inc., an Indianapolis-based architecture, design and engineering firm, introduced a comprehensive wellness program in 2002. In 2006, the company moved to a bona fide wellness plan design and included spouses, bringing the total eligibility to 355.

It offered a generous premium discount for employees and spouses who completed the health assessment and met certain health goals. The average completion rate for the health screenings has been in the high 90th percentile for all program years.

Comparative biometric data on participants completing the assessments in 2002 and again in 2008 is quite impressive:

  • A 15 percent decrease in the number of participants with abnormal measurements
  • A 28 percent overall decrease in the number of abnormal measurements A 37 percent decrease in abnormal blood pressure
  • A 37 percent decrease in abnormal cholesterol readings
  • A 25 percent decrease in abnormal blood sugar readings
  • A 14 percent decrease in abnormal HDL cholesterol readings
  • The number of employees and spouses with a Body Mass Index greater than 30 decreased from 31 percent to 28 percent

The results from the highest risk segment of this population showed tobacco use decreased from 19 percent to 6 percent and obesity from 56 percent to 31 percent.

The company’s success is due to a well-designed program that drives the highest-risk participants into health coaching programs. It’s also due to the commitment of the management team to be an employer of choice, provide valuable benefits, create a culture that supports healthy behaviors and show employees that they care about their health and well-being.