A Show of Support

By Kristin Hunt

Apr. 17, 2008

Some employers have formed work-site support groups for employees struggling with certain health conditions and lifestyle issues as a way to bolster their wellness programs and their bottom lines.

While support groups have yet to become widely accepted by employers, experts say such support systems have the potential to be the next big thing in wellness and disease management initiatives.

“Health care costs keep rising,” says Barry Hall, a Boston-based principal with Buck Consultants. “Employers are at a point of desperation on the health side. There is more and more interest in finding programs that work.”

By bringing employees together in a supportive environment and providing them with the education needed to better manage their conditions, employers will likely see improvements to their bottom line, Hall says. The support group participants are typically more compliant with their health programs and experience better outcomes, he adds.

“Certain diseases are manageable,” he says. “If you don’t manage them you can have huge repercussions, which result in high costs to both the company and individuals. By having people better deal with their conditions, employers spend less on medical treatment.”

Additionally, offering support groups makes employees feel valued, bolstering employee morale and even improving employee retention, says Shelly Wolff, North America leader of health and productivity for Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Stamford, Connecticut.

Employers “send a message to employees that they are more than just someone there to do a job, and they care about them as an individual,” Wolff says. “Those things foster loyalty.”

Work-site support groups can take a variety of forms and focus on numerous topics. Lands’ End, a direct merchandiser in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, has been offering on-site support groups to its employees for nearly 10 years, says Jen Feltz, the company’s health and fitness specialist.

The company has health groups aimed at diabetics, women going though menopause and women diagnosed with breast cancer. Other groups support family members of military officers and working parents. The company is also considering facilitating support groups for those on gluten-free diets and those suffering from fibromyalgia.

Meeting formats and schedules can vary as much as the topics covered. For the most part, however, materials and resources are provided for attendees. A guest speaker or expert, such as a physician specializing in diabetes or a breast cancer survivor, will present pertinent information. Attendees also discuss their own personal experiences. The participants ultimately determine the direction of the meeting, Feltz says.

Lands’ End is not unique. Trane Inc., a heating, ventilation and air conditioning company in Piscataway, New Jersey, focuses its support groups on diabetes, weight-loss management and smoking cessation at several of the company’s locations. It has been offering support groups since 2006.

Additionally, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., in Milwaukee has provided support groups to employees for 10 years. It began with a diabetes program and added a cancer group about four years ago.

At Lands’ End, groups commonly form when the health and wellness staff notices numerous employees posing questions about similar conditions or indicating they need support on similar topics. A health educator on staff then organizes the group.

Trane’s third-party administrator typically identifies candidates for its diabetes support group by reviewing claims data and sending out invitations to those individuals to join the group. Trane stresses to its employees that the company doesn’t have access to their health data, says Heidi Lattig, the director of health and productivity programs.

“Support groups are about giving people time to talk and touch base with one another and find out how others are dealing with the same situation,” she says.

All three companies offer support group meetings on-site for the sake of convenience. On-site meetings, Lattig says, promote participation because they are accessible, and employees feel more comfortable knowing other co-workers will be there, as opposed to unfamiliar faces.

At the same time, however, employee privacy must be protected. Feltz of Lands’ End says it is made clear to participants that the support group is a safe environment to discuss their problems and concerns, and discussions at the meetings must not leave the room.

Trane often has a meeting facilitator unaffiliated with the company to further protect participants’ privacy.

Time is the biggest resource that goes into planning support group meetings, say all three professionals at these three companies. They say support groups are inexpensive ventures that create valuable experiences for employees.

They could not quantify their returns on offering the groups, though. That’s one reason Wolff, of Watson Wyatt, says vast numbers of employers haven’t adopted support groups.

“It’s not readily evident the value it brings to the workplace,” Wolff says. “Once it’s more apparent, it might become more widespread.”

Feltz says launching support groups builds good will and results in a more productive workforce, which she says is reason enough to continue the service.

“It shows we care about our employees and that we care about their overall well-being,” Feltz says. “Healthy, happy employees make healthy, happy individuals. People who are feeling well make better workers.”

The support groups are a smart business decision, Lattig says, and they allow employees to aid one another in their pursuit of healthier lifestyles—which, in the end, benefits the company and has a positive impact on the bottom line.

“We focus on wellness because we believe it’s the right thing to do for our people,” Lattig says. “At the same time, it’s the smart thing to do for our business.”

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