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.

“This has to be a business strategy,” says Tom Carter, vice president, sales and broker relations, Kaiser Permanente California. “And just like any other business strategy, investing in the health of your work force is a good business decision, but it requires discipline. You have to understand that this has to be part of the leadership endorsement; it has to be part of the culture. You have to have a shared vision with the rest of your employees, and you have to measure the results year after year.”

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.

“You need to determine what your budget is per person and whether you want to do executive wellness, as well,” says Dr. Steven Schnur, CEO, EliteHealth.MD LLC. “Then interview several companies and see what fits in that budget.”

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.

“Screening usually involves biometric testing, which is blood pressure and body fat analysis and screening blood work,” Schnur says. “This is what I call an M.D. review, which is where someone actually reviews the screened blood work and the biometric testing.”

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.

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.

No matter your choice, your employees do need to feel a sense of inclusion in, perhaps even some 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 allow them to participate.

“You have to create the shared vision,” Carter says. “People have to feel inspired about it, and they have to feel like their values and ideas are also incorporated. You have to have a champion or a leader. Then you include people on the committee and in the discussion about how to deploy it to the work force. As people feel incorporated, they support it a little more easily.”

A 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.

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 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.

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.

“Usually, you have a 60 percent return on investment in the first two years,” Schnur says. “You probably reach around 100 percent in years three of four.”

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.

“The thinking that got us into high costs and health care reform and lost productivity is not the same thinking that will get us back to healthier communities and healthier populations and better business outcomes,” Carter says. “You have to rethink the way you’re packaging benefits, the way your culture is set up in the workplace.

“To do nothing is just not going to work. When you take a little more charge of the work force and work site health and safety, you can improve your outcomes and really change the culture, which is good for everybody.”