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 strategy is a subset of a human capital strategy,” says Paul Martino, vice president, health and wellness solutions, WellPoint Inc. “If an employer has a long-term horizon and views human capital in a particular way — that it’s valuable, that you want to retain your highly valuable and efficient people — you want to allow people to be at their job and functioning well.”

If you don’t have a program at your business, why should you install one now? If you do have a program, why should you aim to improve it? 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? Do they smoke? Not long ago, you would have been well within your rights to avoid the answers to 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 either question 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.

“A wellness program isn’t like buying a good or a service in the marketplace,” says Dr. Christopher H. Coulter, chief medical officer, Precept Group. “You’re not going to look at three and pick the one with the best price and move on to the next issue. A wellness program really only works where there is a high level of commitment that flows from senior management down.”

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.

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 — 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 and allow them to participate.

“You have to create the shared vision,” says Tom Carter, vice president, sales and broker relations, Kaiser Permanente California. “People have to feel like their values and ideas are incorporated. 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.

“One of the critical pieces of success is to engage employees,” Coulter says. “And it’s not enough to tell them that you want them to behave better or to have marketing materials. You have to show them what’s in it for them. People follow the money, and a structured incentive program will greatly enhance the participation rates and the success of the program.”

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.

“An employer who could get a wellness program, in a traditional sense, to pay for itself in the first year or two would be a pretty good result,” Martino 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.

“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.”