Wellness programs and initiatives are evolving as employers realize healthier employees give them a competitive edge.

“It’s an issue of creating a high-performing, competitive work force,” says Nancy Pokorny, managing consultant with Findley Davies. “Currently, many companies hang their hat on being world-class safety organizations. They know that maintaining a safe work environment is good for business. As we move forward, companies will be known as ‘healthy organizations,’ too.”

Smart Business spoke with Pokorny about the evolution of wellness programs.

How have wellness programs evolved in recent years?

In the recent past, company HR leaders or benefits staffs initiated wellness programs, but now executive teams are driving strategic wellness initiatives. We prefer ‘wellness initiatives’ because programs tend to have a beginning and an end. Initiatives are much more strategic and imply that wellness is one component of the overall business strategy.

For example, a Fortune 500 Cleveland manufacturer underwent a global HR system implementation that required a year-long, intense work schedule for members of HR, IT and project management teams. Prior to launch, project team members gathered for wellness training. They were given free access to health management tools so that they could manage their health throughout the rigorous project. The focus was not on benefits cost reduction; it was on achieving peak performance.

Additionally, employers are integrating multiple initiatives, such as wellness, benefit plan design, health and safety, and onsite clinics to improve employee health. And research supports the interconnectivity of these various initiatives.

A National Council on Compensation Insurance Inc. study shows a link between obesity and higher workers’ compensation costs, finding that obese injured workers received an average of 75 treatments for an injury versus an average of four treatments for those deemed to be nonobese.

What are the most important components of a wellness initiative?

There are three: leadership, permanent commitment to change and accountability. Let’s look at each one, starting with leadership. Too often, leaders provide verbal support, and maybe even financial support through the allocation of a wellness budget, but they have no real role in the initiative. The organization’s leaders and key influencers must have clearly stated roles, just as they would with a new sales, marketing or reorganization initiative.

Second, in order for wellness to become a permanent part of an organization’s culture, wellness should not be something you ‘do,’ it should become a part of who you are as an organization.

Research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab indicates we make approximately 200 decisions daily related to food alone. For the eight to 12 hours a day an employee is at work, it provides a great opportunity to enable good decision-making. This includes food and beverage choices and areas for movement, such as open stairwells.

Finally, as with any change management process, there needs to be accountability for change. We are seeing the use of incentives for health management activities and outcomes. We recommend that these incentives apply not only to those who are enrolled in the corporate benefit plans but to all employees.

One caution about incentives — they are good tools for jumpstarting initiatives but they do not change behavior in the long term. That’s where leadership and permanent culture change come in.

How can you tell if a wellness initiative is working?

With expert help and use of a third party to protect employee privacy, there are several steps you can take to measure the impact of your wellness initiative.

  • Categorize your employee population by health risk group through a health screening and measure the movement between risk categories.

  • Determine the number of employees with one or more chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, etc. How many are actively managing chronic conditions through medications and lifestyle changes? Are they reversing their conditions by working with a health coach, an onsite health center or personal physician?

  • Look at change in attitude toward health from year to year, via employee engagement surveys, culture surveys or wellness surveys.

  • Measure the advancement of the physical work environment. Is the cafeteria or vending area seeing an increase in the sale of healthy products versus nonhealthy products?

  • Analyze aggregate information from benefit programs to find changes in utilization and other patterns, such as if the percentage of employees receiving preventive care exams increases or the percentage of employees visiting the ER decreases.

By using this type of ‘wellness dashboard,’ you can determine which efforts are working and allocate resources to those making the greatest impact.

Are wellness initiatives relevant only to those companies that offer health care benefits?

No. If you focus only on the employees in your benefit plan, wellness initiatives appear to be more about saving money for the company than creating and maintaining a healthy, productive work force. Similar to the efforts in establishing a safe work environment, efforts to create a healthy work environment are here to stay. A healthy work force will outperform an unhealthy one because there is a greater energy and capacity for work.

Nancy Pokorny is a managing consultant at Findley Davies. Reach her at (216) 875-1939 or npokorny@findleydavies.com.

Insights Human Capital is brought to you by Findley Davies Inc.

Published in Akron/Canton