Sector Report: Workplace Wellness Programs Continue Healthy Ascent

By Sarah Fister Gale

Mar. 21, 2017

Wellness programs have been gaining popularity as a way to attract top talent with the potential to lower health care costs through healthy living. Larger companies in particular have embraced this trend, with 60 percent providing comprehensive programs including cash incentives, gamified challenges and custom programming.

It’s a natural extension of health benefits programming and a desire to create a more productive and engaged workforce, said Michael Maniccia, specialist leader for Deloitte. “You can’t have an optimal health strategy if you are not paying attention to healthy living and avoiding risky behavior.”

Most organizations begin their wellness offerings with low-cost easy-to-implement tools like health surveys to identify risks, seminars to address certain behaviors, and weight loss or exercise challenges. Larger companies with more resources may offer on-site amenities like gyms, classes and healthy cafeteria menu options, while smaller companies may cover the cost of gym memberships, or rely on low or no-cost benefits provided through their conventional health care benefits.

Wearables like Fitbits and Jawbones are also gaining popularity as a way to engage employees in wellness offerings and drive collaboration through team challenges and gamification, said Ophelia Yeung, senior consultant at the Global Wellness Institute, or GWI, in Washington, D.C. “It’s a trend that is specifically being used to attract millennials,” she said.

Along with adding more programs, the scope of wellness has continued to evolve. The menu of options has been steadily expanding beyond physical fitness, said LuAnne Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health in Washington, D.C. “The biggest trend we see is that companies don’t think of wellness as a single program anymore,” she said. “It’s becoming part of the culture of the organization.”

This has lead many companies to expand their offerings to support emotional and financial well-being, with things like stress management tools and financial planning seminars. “Leading companies are looking at wellness — or well-being — as whatever employees need to bring their best selves to work,” Heinen said.

Though for companies that want to be perceived as having a wellness-focused culture, they have to do more than simply offering more programs. The leadership team has to champion wellness as a company value, for employees to embrace the programs, she said. “If everyone is overworked and the boss is mean, it doesn’t matter how many free yoga classes you offer, they will be afraid to take time off to use it.”

The Challenges: Still a Patchwork Approach

This focus on wellness as a cultural issue is also important because it can be difficult to prove the bottom line impact of wellness. “Studies show a neutral to slightly positive reduction in medical costs,” according to Katherine Johnston of GWI. Though she pointed to a recent study from the Health Enhancement Research Organization that shows a distinct correlation between comprehensive wellness programs and corporate stock performance over the course of six years. “It can also be used to attract customers and drive employee retention,” she said.

Along with the challenge of measuring financial impact, the wellness marketplace is also still very piecemeal, which can be frustrating, especially for big companies. “Large employers like to have a single source for all of their programs, that is not happening,” said Heinen. It’s forcing them to cobble together a variety of best-in-class programs, and to manage them individually, which takes time and resources, and can be more difficult to promote to the workforce. Though she noted that some vendors are beginning to offer single site management platforms for multiple wellness offerings, including Jiff, which was acquired in January by Castlight Health, UnitedHealthcare’s Rally, and Mobile Health Consumer. They aren’t perfect solutions yet, she said, and they may only manage a subset of a company’s wellness programs — but the industry is definitely heading in that direction.

Advice: Set Goals, Drive Engagement

To ensure companies get the most value from their wellness investments, Maniccia encourages HR and the leadership team to define what they expect to get from these programs, and how they will measure that impact. It might be participation rates, increased employee engagement, or just a sense of a healthier workforce. “The goals you set today will shape the programs you implement down the line,” he said.

Companies also need to keep their programs fresh and let people know what’s available, he said. “If you want health and wellness to be part of your culture, you have to drive engagement,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good the program is, if no one uses it won’t add value to the organization.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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