Wellness at work Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

Approximately 90 percent of all work-places with 50 or more employees and virtually all employers with more than 750 employees offer some form of health promotion program at their workplace. Clearly, many consider creating a healthy work environment good business.

“The majority of large employer groups have developed wellness programs. They understand that promoting wellness in the workplace just makes sense on a lot of levels for employers,” says Michael P. O’Donnell, Ph.D., MBA, MPH, vice president and chief wellness officer for UPMC Health Plan.

If done correctly, health promotion programs can be beneficial to a company. Healthy employees miss fewer days of work and are more likely to stay on the job longer. Health promotion programs can improve health by reducing health risks, helping manage controllable diseases and reducing the use of avoidable substances.

Smart Business talked with O’Donnell to identify what an employer should know to develop effective wellness programs in the workplace.

What are some of the pitfalls that employers may face in starting a wellness program?

One of the biggest mistakes employers make in the area of health promotion is to focus exclusively on education. They believe that all they have to do is give people the right information and people will make the right decisions. They focus on improving the communication by making multimedia presentations, improving the graphics, etc.

You can educate others all you want about leading a healthy lifestyle, but if they’re not motivated, they won’t do it. Actually, most people know that they should exercise. Most smokers know that smoking causes many kinds of cancer. If knowledge were enough, no one would smoke and everyone would exercise. What employers may not realize is how hard it can be for some employees to act on what they know.

What elements are necessary for a health promotion program to succeed?

There are four factors: awareness, motivation, skills and opportunity. Programs that do not include efforts to motivate people, build skills and provide opportunities for health are not likely to succeed.

Awareness is important to mobilize support. When people realized that secondhand smoke causes more than irritation, and that it actually makes people sick and can cause lung cancer and heart disease, workers mobilized to force their companies to create smoke-free workplaces. Without this knowledge, a worker might view a no-smoking policy as restricting personal liberties rather than as a way to protect worker health.

Should employers utilize financial incentives as motivation?

Financial incentives are great at getting people in the door. They are good ways to get people to take a health risk assessment or participate in a health screening. But, they have virtually no impact on behavior changes. You can use financial incentives to get your employees’ attention, but to get beyond that point, the incentive has to be more intrinsically important to an individual. Another problem with financial incentives is that when the financial incentive goes away the motivation to participate often goes, as well.

Why are skills needed for someone to succeed in a wellness program?

Living a healthy lifestyle can be equated to learning a new language. You have to immerse yourself in a new culture. It’s not enough to know what you need to eat. You also need to know where to buy these foods, how to prepare them, and what to order and what to avoid when you eat in restaurants in order to eat healthy. The most successful skill-building programs will teach strategies to overcome barriers that usually cause people trouble in making behavior changes.

How can an employer help employees succeed in a health promotion program?

It can be little things. For instance, making the stairwells open and encouraging people to walk up to their offices rather than ride the elevator. Highlight areas outside where employees can walk on their lunch hour. Offer healthy food in the cafeteria. Establish a smoke-free environment. An employer has the ability to set policies that can encourage employees to lead healthier lifestyles.

How do you determine if a health promotion program will be beneficial to your company?

The first step is to clarify your goals. Why do you want to develop a health promotion program? Is it to improve health, reduce medical costs, enhance productivity or attract talented employees?

The next step is to think about how much achieving those goals is worth to you as an employer. If it is worth $10 per employee, don’t bother. Helping people change habits they have formed over decades of time is not easy, and it is not cheap.

If it is worth $100 or more per employee, the next step is to do some in-depth research to figure out the best program to develop to achieve your goal. You can do this research on your own or by hiring a consultant. Some health plans can help you with this step.

MICHAEL P. O’DONNELL, Ph.D., MBA, MPH, is a vice president and chief wellness officer for UPMC Health Plan. Reach him at (412) 434-1200.