Strategic Edge logo Rising health insurance costs? Explore creative ways to get them down
Wellness programs can boost employees' health, productivity and the company's bottom line
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Imagine investing $1 for a return of $3.48.

When companies invest in wellness programs, they save on medical costs, says Stephen Spielman, director of wellness services at The Methodist Hospital in Houston. He quotes the statistic as one way to demonstrate the research that shows exploring ways to help your employees' wellness is not only a positive benefit, it's one path to improve the business.

"It's a very cost-efficient, real inexpensive way to help the bottom line," Spielman explains.

He coordinates wellness programs at the hospital and has seen more than 150 companies experience good results after implementing some form of wellness programs.

Rod Hart of the Regence Group says when it comes to health and safety, the employer ultimately pays in terms of medical costs.

He points to another statistic—$1 invested in a work-based health program will save an average $5.82 in lower absenteeism costs.

Fifteen years ago, "wellness wasn't even on the radar screen," Hart says. But it's now a consideration for those further up on the organizational food chain.

Spielman says within the last year he has seen a growing interest in wellness programs. Like others in the field, he sees rising insurance rates and a more competitive environment for prospective employees.

Also worth noting is the awareness of ergonomics, and the resulting increase in workers' compensation claims related to ergonomics in the last four years, Hart says.

When a company first inquires about a wellness program, it often asks how the new program will affect its financial picture. However, Spielman cautions, do not expect an immediate return on investment.

"It takes three to five years to feel the full effect," Spielman says.

Different approaches to wellness

"The biggest thing (in implementing a program) is to look at the company's demographics," Hart says, noting age and obesity levels are two of the most common priorities.

Examine the health risks of the population—look at its sedentary lifestyles (work and home), its nutritional and dietary needs, for example, to explore ways to reduce obesity. Initially, conduct a voluntary comprehensive screening of employees. They complete a four- to five-page health appraisal and may have their biometrics measured.

After the results have been compiled, each employee receives an individualized report that can total as many as 15 pages detailing how their health is impacting their lives and ways to improve themselves.

From a company perspective, the collective data enable wellness consultants to tailor programs that will address the company's employees' specific needs.

SS&G Financial Services, a Leading Edge Alliance firm that became self-insured for health insurance last year, has worked this year to promote wellness in its company. It sponsors a disease management program with a third-party administrator, says Rebecca Osborne, human resource director. The program enables employees to learn more about their health problems. For example, if someone has diabetes, she is given detailed information from a nurse to help her understand the potential problems and complications. SS&G, however, is not made aware of an individual's health concerns.

This fall, a fitness boot camp is the latest addition to its wellness lineup. The firm's managing partner, Gary Shamis, has participated in two such programs and thought they would be great for employees.

Twenty-four people could participate in the first boot camp—the company pays for their fitness training and hosts sessions one day a week for six weeks from 4:30 to 6 p.m. It includes a little company time and personal time for the rest.

In addition to the formal wellness programs, the company has its own softball and volleyball teams and offers golfing opportunities. "It's not for health insurance (cost reduction), but it's good for health," she says.

Participation is key

Consider an incentive system to maximize participation, thus maximizing the impact of the wellness program on the company's and employees' bottom line.

A non-monetary award such as a free T-shirt or a day off works well, Spielman says. He notes that companies without incentives see participation rates 30 percent less than those businesses that offer incentives.

Spielman says companies also should make participation as easy and as visible as possible.

For example, the company can send out e-mail blasts to its employees with wellness tips and details on programs offered.

"It's really visible and really convenient," he says.

One company had 100 to 150 executives in their offices and conducted executive physicals for each one.

Hart says companies should be proactive rather than reactive to problems that their employees bring up.

Historically, he notes, if employee Jane Doe had a problem with her back, the company would require her to go to the doctor, get an official note requiring a new chair then order the new seat.

Now, if an employee has discomfort while sitting at his desk, the company should work to change the chair or find another solution right away.

"It conveys trust to the employee," Hart explains. "It says, 'I don't have to go the extra mile,' for the company to believe my problem."

Businesses also should consider involving their employees in the wellness program development process. Hart says consider creating a wellness committee and include only members who are truly interested in the objective.

These people in turn can become wellness ambassadors.

At Regence, the company started a Weight Watchers program that has been wildly successful. Participating employees are finding success, which encourages their co-workers for whom they serve as mentors. There's a supportive environment.

"A big part of (a wellness program) is trying to create energy," Hart says. "It's the fabric of everyday conversations that can change a culture."

At Regence, they also have developed buddy systems for their weight loss and smoking cessations, offering incentives to both parties. The company's overall push for wellness has led to more active employees.

Last year, when the company held its "Regence Summer Games," 11 percent or 660 employees participated. This past year, 18 percent or 1,020 employees participated—that's a 60 percent increase.

The key is to figure out what employees really want, how to get that information and the best channels to distribute it.

Spending now to save in the future

Spielman says companies that are short-sighted say they do not have the money to spend. "We believe a long-term approach is essential for success," he says. e