Health/productivity management Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007
When you feel healthy and energetic at work, aren’t you more productive? Don’t you think the same can be said of your employees? Isn’t one of your biggest challenges, then, providing a means for employees to stay healthy or — at worst — avoiding prolonged absences from work?

Smart Business talked to Terry Garrison, a San Francisco-based senior consultant with Watson Wyatt, a global human capital and financial management consulting firm, about ways that organizations can engage their employees in integrated health improvement and productivity management. Incorporating accountability empowers employees and minimizes the impact of absenteeism.

How can employers engage their employees to become accountable for improving and managing their health?

Most organizations believe they have the power to improve overall employee health and productivity and have, in recent years, provided employees with tools for making health care choices. Although employees seem to appreciate these services and tools, it does not always result in their improved health and work productivity. What is required is an integrated strategy that raises accountability and effectiveness of all stakeholders.

Incentive plans that simply reward people for improving their health often do not result in long-lasting behavior changes or lower health costs. Alternatively, employees are more likely to adopt long-term behavior change if they have a personal relationship with, and are accountable to, someone who can reinforce their self-determined plan for behavior change.

Integrated strategy starts by identifying individual employees with health risks through Health Risk Assessments (HRA) and reviewing medical and pharmacy claims data. Those employees can then be offered the services of a health coach who can offer personalized education about their specific health risks and help tailor a plan to address those risks.

Are there points where health management and absence management intersect that can improve overall program effectiveness?

Our research shows that integrating health and productivity best practices can result in desired health management outcomes and lower health care and wage replacement costs associated with absence. This is where the health coach is again effective by becoming a single point of access to support absence- and productivity-related programs.

Working in tandem with appropriate incentives can enable and support the desired behavior from employees. For example, we know that depression frequently occurs with a variety of physical illnesses and impairments, such as chronic lower back pain, and that people who suffer from chronic or catastrophic health issues are 60 percent more likely to be depressed and have 40 percent higher health care costs. A well-trained health coach can identify confusion and non-compliant behavior; identify whether a root cause is depression; educate the employee on the effects of depression and various treatment options available under the employer’s benefit program; and refer him or her to appropriate mental health resources.

How can internal workplace and HR policy and practices promote health and productivity?

In recent years, employers have become better in managing employee health productivity, but they still have room for improvement. A key component is making managers and supervisors accountable for supporting company health care strategy. To accomplish this, however, you have to have incentives for managers to care about whether people are at work, as well as training and tools to help them follow through on policies.

How does vendor management fit into this new equation?

Many national health and disability carriers use a variety of subcontractors. The result is that some organizations have up to 10 vendors addressing various components of their health and productivity programming.

We recognize that it is rare for employers to find one or even two vendors that meet best practice for all their health-management and absence-management program needs. To address this, we endorse annual summits that engage vendors to discuss the various functions they perform and then collaboratively develop a plan to align and optimize roles and processes. Undoubtedly, organizations that establish strategies to evaluate the effectiveness of their entire vendor continuum will fare better at managing their health and productivity outcomes.

What kind of results will a company that follows these suggestions expect to see immediately and down the road?

Research shows that successful health-and productivity-management programs produce a positive return on investment of 3:1 to 7:1. Typically, it takes 18 to 24 months to see the first positive returns, though some components may produce in a shorter time frame.

TERRY GARRISON is a senior health and productivity management consultant in the Group Health Care Practice at Watson Wyatt’s San Francisco office. Reach her at (415) 733-4404 or