Engaging employees Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

Worksite wellness programs are increasing in popularity as many employers have come to realize the advantages of prevention.

Preventing health problems is more cost-efficient than having to treat them later. Plus, there are other benefits of having a healthier staff besides simply reducing costs.

“Wellness programs appeal to employers because they have been shown to have the potential to decrease absenteeism and increase presenteeism, reduce medical claim costs, and improve employee productivity, recruitment and retention,” says Rose K. Gantner, Ed.D., NCC, the senior director of sales and product development for UPMC Health Plan. “Not only that, quality wellness programs can raise a company’s public perception.”

Smart Business spoke with Gantner about creating effective wellness programs and how to encourage employee participation.

What are the usual components of a wellness program?

In general, all wellness programs should include assessments. Some examples of these assessments are health risk questionnaires, biometric screenings, wellness education and fitness programs.

Assessments are critical because they provide the best opportunities to raise awareness and educate the employees about their health, while uncovering potential health risks before they become medical concerns. For an employer, an assessment can provide aggregate data, as well as the added bonus of stratifying their population into low-, moderate- and high-risk factors. Assessments can also determine your employee population’s percentage of readiness to change.

What are some factors that can impact the potential success of a wellness program?

In order for a wellness program to be effective with your employees, certain elements must be present. First and foremost, the company’s senior leadership must make a commitment that aligns both the program’s vision and mission with its goals and objectives. You also need an increasing awareness of wellness issues, employees who are supportive of making a commitment to personal change and organizational support of healthy work culture.

Also, employees must be able to have information available to them through online, on-site, telephonic and print modalities. They must be able to get support through incentives for personal lifestyle changes. The work environment itself must promote healthy lifestyles by providing support through initiatives such as healthy cafeteria and vending machine choices.

If, as studies suggest, Americans are spending more and more of their waking hours at work, it can mean that it is also possible that they are not getting enough physical exercise to maintain healthy lifestyles. But it is also logical that people who spend an increasing amount of time at work would be more open to wellness programs that would be offered at the worksite.

How can employee participation in a wellness program be encouraged?

Participation by employees can be encouraged when employers make it easy for them to be active. For example, if there are on-site facilities that can be used by employees at no charge and the opportunity for incentives stimulates participation, then more employees will be excited to take part in the program. Also, when a company’s health insurer is able to supply comprehensive wellness programs, as well as promotional and informational materials and overall support for the effort, that will also increase activity.

How important are incentives in terms of driving participation?

Studies have shown that when incentives are used to encourage participation, there are larger gains in terms of reduction of absenteeism and increased productivity. But incentives should only be given for participation and for following the rules. Employees should not receive incentives for meeting a specific weight goal, but instead, they should be rewarded for team competition.

What can small employers do to encourage wellness?

The size of the company is not really a factor in terms of implementing things that encourage wellness. For example, you can offer healthy foods in your cafeteria or in your vending machines. You can offer flextime to employees who want to exercise during their lunchtimes. You could provide information (online programs, newsletters and downloaded PDF files) to your employees about wellness that you could get from your health insurer. You could offer to partially reimburse your employees for membership in health clubs. Simply put, being more proactive in your employees’ health makes good business sense.

What are some important elements to a successful wellness program?

An employer has to be consistent. A health screening without follow-up does not do much to show employees you are serious about the program. If an employer encourages healthy eating but does not offer healthy choices in the vending machine or at the cafeteria, then that employer is sending mixed messages. Also, if employees are encouraged to get fit and participate in wellness programs but are not permitted any time to do so, that will not be an effective message either. Management needs to commit to and support the programs through both leadership goals and an operational budget for worksite wellness programs to be truly effective and for the organization to reap the benefits.

Rose K. Gantner, Ed.D., NCC, is the senior director of sales and product development for UPMC Health Plan. Reach her at (412) 454-8571 or gantnerrk@upmc.edu.