Employees Aren’t Engaged by Wellness Programs, Study Says

By Staff Report

Apr. 2, 2008

Employers still have a lot of work to do to make their wellness programs more effective, according to a study released Thursday, April 3, by Hewitt Associates.

While companies are devoting more time and money into helping employees live healthier lifestyles, employees aren’t sure they want their employers taking on this role, according to Hewitt.

Eighty-eight percent of employers surveyed plan to invest in ways to improve the health and productivity of their workforces, up from 66 percent last year.

But only 12 percent of employees believe that it’s appropriate for their employer to play this role. This presents a huge challenge for companies, says Jim Winkler, leader of Hewitt’s health management consulting practice.

“Employees trust their doctors and view them as the sole people who own their health,” he says.

Even employees who do take a health risk assessments as part of their company’s wellness program often don’t act on their results, the study finds.

While eight out of 10 employees took a health risk questionnaire when given the opportunity, 40 percent of them didn’t take any actions based on specific recommendations provided by the follow-up report, according to the study.

That’s not good news for employers, particularly since more than half of employees or their dependents have a chronic health condition, the study says.

The problem is that too often companies rely on incentives or penalties to get employees to participate in their wellness programs, Winkler says. While offering a carrot or stick may help initially, companies need to think more about long-term ways to motivate employees to join and become engaged with their wellness programs.

Employers need to take a look at their corporate culture and figure out what motivates their employees. They also need to focus on health issues that are relevant to their workforces, Winkler says. “February was Healthy Heart Month, but does that make sense for your population?” he says.

Employees can get burned out on messaging if it’s not relevant, Winkler says. “If one year is about losing weight, the next year is stop smoking and the next year is get your screenings, people are going to get fatigued,” he says. “Employers need to refresh their messaging, but keep it relevant.”

One way to do this is by “negative framing,” or targeting employees about a specific health concern, says Tim Stentiford, a principal at Hewitt. For example, one manufacturing company with a large male population recently sent out postcards to employees’ homes that depicted a 57-year-old man saying that he had just found out he had colon cancer. “They scrapped the 24-page guide on prevention and wellness and chose this instead,” he says.

The postcards included information on what steps employees should take regarding how to get a colonoscopy and where they could find more information based on what health care provider they used.

Another way that companies can keep employees engaged in their wellness programs is by making their benefits portals easier to use, Stentiford says. Right now there is too much information and it’s too confusing for employees to figure out what they should do, he says.

“For most employees right now there would be 13 different resources just for diabetes,” he says.

Many companies are figuring out ways to make it easier for employees to find the information they need. In some cases, this means not requiring employees to sign in to find information, like doctors in their areas or phone numbers for specific services, Stentiford says.

“Employers are taking off their HR and benefits hats and putting on their employee hats to figure out where there might be issues,” he says.

—Jessica Marquez

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