Opinion: Wellness programs pay off in the workplace

By Donna Marshall

Donna Marshall

Donna Marshall

Workplace wellness programs have become the latest buzzword in the battle against rising health care costs. Ninety-two percent of employers with 200 or more employees reported offering wellness programs in 2009, according to data from the Rand Corp.

The offerings vary widely – from providing onsite exercise opportunities to more complex initiatives that include health assessments and targeted resources (such as access to health coaches) to help workers achieve specific goals.

The shift toward wellness in the workplace makes sense, given the amount of time we spend at work. A group of employees is a captive audience and there is legitimate value in using that time to promote healthy behaviors. It’s easy to forget that many workers live in areas where they don’t have access to fresh produce or aren’t educated about nutrition.

Providing access to healthy food or seminars about healthy eating may allow those employees to make big changes in their diets and lifestyles.

Of course, wellness programs aren’t without their challenges. Employers are often leery about implementing workplace wellness efforts because they lack the money or staff to carry out such plans. Even larger organizations with more resources struggle with how to communicate the various options available to diverse and dispersed work sites.

Participation is also a problem, with some surveys suggesting that less than 20 percent of eligible employees engage in the programs that are offered.

Yet, despite the obstacles, pursuing workplace wellness programs is a worthwhile endeavor. Here’s why:

  • Improved morale: People feel good when an employer takes an interest in their health and well-being. Group efforts aimed at improving health also help foster camaraderie and greater connections among co-workers.Through the Be Colorado Wellness Program, employees of the University of Colorado, University of Colorado Hospital and University Physicians, Inc., are able to participate in an initiative dubbed “MOVE” that encourages workers to get moving for 30 minutes a day, 12 days a month. “We have over 5,000 employees enrolled in the program and we get great feedback from staff about how working to reach the 12-day goal creates a common bond with their colleagues,” said Nancy Littleford, director of the Be Colorado Wellness Program.
  • Increased productivity: Healthy employees miss fewer days because of illnesses or complications with chronic conditions. A 2007 Milken Institute study found that lowering obesity rates alone could produce productivity gains of $254 billion and avoid $60 billion in treatment expenditures annually for companies.
  • Better health outcomes: While results vary from employer to employer, some companies are having great success in improving the health of their workers through wellness initiatives. In Colorado, Pinnacol Assurance is offering a comprehensive wellness program to its policyholders that is yielding strong results. So far, the participants have experienced a 25 percent drop in cancer risk, a 35 percent decline in smoking rates and a 25 percent reduction in depression risk in just three years. (Pinnacol will share more results from its program at the Colorado Culture of Health Conference on April 30th at the Denver Marriott City Center.)
  • Reduced health care costs: As people are getting healthier, they are spending less on health care and so are their employers. The Rand Corp. studied PepsiCo’s wellness program and found that efforts to help employees manage chronic illnesses saved $3.78 in health care costs for every $1 invested. Wellness can also help employers contain costs. Companies where wellness is part of the culture can reverse the trend of double digit increases in insurance premiums. That happens as a result of changing health care spending on the individual level. If employees participate in a health screening and learn of health risks, they can take action to reduce the risks, before they become expensive health issues for both the individuals and the employers. Also, by educating the employees and engaging them in a dialogue about health and wellness, they can work more toward prevention.
  • Improved recruiting: Offering wellness benefits can help establish an organization a a socially responsible employer, which can make a difference when luring culture-conscious talent. A culture of health also helps engender loyalty, particularly among millennials, who want certain lifestyle aspects built into their day. They want the ability to leave their desks mid-day and workout.

In the next few years, I expect wellness programs to become increasingly more mainstream — especially given new Affordable Care Act rules allowing employers to increase rewards for employees who meet health goals. Employers will see their investment in health promotion activities pay off – even if it’s just in the form of an employee who comes to work healthier and happier and grateful to participate, which ultimately, is priceless.

Donna Marshall is the executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Business Group on Health. The group is a catalyst in the community to improve quality and value in health care by advancing the purchaser role. For information: go to www.coloradohealthonline.org.

Opinions expressed in Health News Colorado represent the views of the individual authors.

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