by Randall S. Hansen Ph.D. With shrinking paychecks and rising healthcare costs both employers and workers appear stuck in a battle of diminishing returns. There is no question as open-enrollment meetings begin that employees will see further erosion in their paychecks from rising healthcare costs that many employers will pass on.
While not much can be done by individuals (or even employers) until the government and the rest of the country build momentum to tackle the mess that is the U.S. healthcare system there is ONE thing that workers and employers can explore together to reduce the burden of ever-increasing healthcare costs.
That one thing is a workplace wellness program. A workplace wellness program encourages employees to take steps to prevent the onset or worsening of a health condition eliminate unhealthy behaviors and habits and promote the adoption of healthy lifestyles. There are two types of wellness programs. First there are insurance-based programs (that lower premiums if employees agree to certain lifestyle changes). Second there are employer-based programs (in which the employer is truly trying to change the lives of its employees for the better). This article focuses solely on the employer-based programs because of the greater benefits they offer to both employers and workers.
According to recent statistics the vast majority of larger companies have some sort of wellness program while more than half of all employers provide some minimum amount of encouragement to their employees to take responsibility for their health.
The Need for Wellness Programs
Studies show that chronic illnesses including heart disease diabetes and obesity account for three-quarters of health costs -- and that the typical American diet is responsible for most of the preventable diseases including 91 percent of diabetes 82 percent of heart disease and 71 percent of colon cancer.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics almost two-thirds of the population is overweight with more than a third identified as clinically obese -- and the numbers are rising. Furthermore according to a study by the University of Michigan overweight and obese people on average incur up to $1500 more in annual medical bills than people at healthier weights -- as being overweight reportedly greatly increases the chances of heart disease stroke diabetes gall bladder disorders some types of cancer and other maladies.
Furthermore a study reported ion the American Journal of Health of employees at six large companies found that the cost linked to serious persistent stress was about $24 billion -- or about 8 percent of the total healthcare expenditures of those companies. Some experts put the cost of employee stress -- just in lost productivity from absenteeism and lower morale -- at $300 billion dollars a year.
Preventable illnesses account for the vast majority of medical visits -- and about 90 percent of all healthcare costs.
U.S. healthcare costs doubled from 1990 to 2001 and are projected to double again by 2012 -- and reach a projected $4 trillion by 2015.
Wellness Benefits for Workers
For many workers the encouragement of wellness can lead to better physical health greater job satisfaction and a more positive mental outlook. Studies also show wellness programs result in fewer workplace injuries.
Other benefits include increased stamina lower levels of stress and a better self-image and higher self-esteem.
Because we spend more and more time at work than any other place finding the time to exercise or focus on wellness outside of work makes it harder to do; thus participating in a wellness program gives workers a chance to get healthier while not increasing the financial burden on the family.
Wellness Benefits for Employers
According to the Cornell University Institute for Health and Productivity Studies employers can save between $300 and $450 annually per employee as a result of reduced health expenditures from an annual wellness investment of $100 to $150 per employee.
Some would say that an even bigger benefit than the costs savings to both employers and workers is that a workplace wellness program increases the (mental and physical) health and morale of employees resulting in increased productivity and reduced absenteeism and turnover higher job satisfaction and short-term disability claims. In fact a recent study showed that corporate fitness center participants had 1.3 days fewer short-term disability claims yearly per employee than non-participants and had fewer health risks.
In addition to the cost savings and increased productivity studies have found that employees are more loyal to organizations that establish wellness programs -- and that adding a wellness program strengthens the organization's values and corporate culture.
Finally a high quality fitness and wellness program is an employee recruitment and retention tool.
Elements of Wellness Programs
While wellness programs should be tailored to the needs of each employer's workforce some standard elements of many wellness programs include:
- health education/awareness
- weight loss
- nutrition/healthy eating
- biking/walking to work
- lunchtime exercise classes
- stress management
- smoking cessation
- alcohol and drug abuse counseling
- preventative education
The best starting place should be to talk with and/or survey employees -- about their views of health and nutrition exercise and fitness and interest in participating in a wellness program. Some organizations have reported finding weak involvement in programs that are not customized to the needs of employees. Furthermore top management -- and all levels of management -- must not only support the wellness program but set an example by being active participants.
Other elements of successful wellness programs includes:
- the use (hiring) of a "Wellness Czar" (or coach director motivator manager)
- conducting annual on-site health fairs (where workers could obtain flu shots cholesterol screenings blood pressure readings and other healthy-living assessments and information)
- publishing (in print or online) a wellness newsletter full of healthy-living tips wellness program news and aggregate employee health results
- supporting community-based health programs
- establishing a workplace wellness library
- developing a point system for awarding of "Wellness Prizes" (such as stress balls water bottles and other wellness merchandise; health-food-store gift certificates; gym membership and/or personal-trainer coupons; spa treatment coupons and sporting-goods stores gift certificates). Some employers offer cash incentives reserved parking spaces extra time off and reductions to healthcare premiums. The key for incentives is that they must be items that will motivate employees from the beginning ?- and keep them actively involved in the wellness program (by providing positive reinforcement for good behaviors and ongoing participation).
Some employers have taken wellness even further by developing fitness and walking trails on corporate campuses constructing onsite gyms and fitness centers and even developing onsite medical clinics. In fact an August 2008 issue of Business Week reports that on-site medical clinics (often run by outside vendors) is on the increase -- backed by a recent study by a benefits consulting firm that found that one-third of all employers with more than 1000 workers either have -- or are planning to build -- an on-site medical center.
Final Thoughts on Workplace Wellness
Workplace-wellness programs clearly benefit both employees and employers.
Employers who value their employees should consider starting a wellness program -- or taking an existing one to the next level. While there are some financial costs the benefits are abundantly clear -- and make both financial and moral sense.
As the workplace wellness program is developed or enhanced remember to make changes throughout the organization -- by replacing bad snacks in vending machines or breakrooms with healthy options and updating and upgrading the menu in company cafeterias.
Finally if there are concerns about implementing a wellness program consider these five obstacles that impede successful workplace wellness programs according to the 2004 National Worksite Health Promotion Survey -- and how your organization can avoid these mistakes:
- Lack of employee interest -? 64 percent
- Insufficient staff resources -? 50 percent
- Inadequate funds -? 48 percent
- Failure to engage high-risk employees ?- 48 percent
- Inability to elicit the support of upper management -? 38 percent
While many organizations are more than willing (for a fee) to assist organizations in developing or managing a wellness program one of the best sites on the Web for tons of great workplace wellness resources is: Employee Wellness Program.
Individuals can find wellness resources -- health nutrition fitness balance and more -- at EmpoweringRetreat.com: Tools for a Healthy and Happy Life.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college career and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Succeed in the workplace! Find great tools and resources for succeeding at work: Workplace Resources for Dealing With Your Job.