What if your wellness program actually made employees well?

May 18, 2016 Steven Laird

Many employers are providing some benefit that could be considered a “wellness” offering. Fitness subsidies are popular.  Most drug plans provide some support to quit smoking. Health plans typically cover services of mental health professionals.  And EAPs are widely offered. And yet, as the media repeatedly remind us, we are over-weight, we sit too much and we are all stressed.

"I will do my part to help my clients manage their plans to support their employees" - Lizann Reitmeier, Health Practice Leader
“To be really impactful, wellness is a way-of-life and it will impact corporate culture and may even change the way employees work. This is daunting.” – Lizann Reitmeier, Health Practice Leader

Of course, none of these is a real health condition, but they are all factors leading to heart attack and stroke, they contribute to some cancers, and evidence has shown they also impact our mental health. Now these are medical conditions and they are the leading causes of death and disability in Canada.

According to the World Health Organization, if the major risk factors for chronic disease – and unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and tobacco use – were eliminated, at least 80% of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and 40% of cancers, would be prevented.

Wellness is just not a burning platform.

Wellness programs have not taken off on a large scale with Canadian employers. The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey 2015 indicates 45% of participating plan sponsors indicated they offer a wellness program while only 30% of participating employees say the same. Some blame they lack of employer interest in wellness on public health care.  Unlike in the U.S., Canadian benefit plans do not cover the cost of doctors and hospitals, making health benefit costs more manageable.  In our siloed analysis of benefit plans, we don’t acknowledge the cost of sick leave, short-term and long-term disability claims when we are talking about wellness.  This is possibly because few employers track the cost of sick leave and many employers pass the cost of long-term disability to employees. However—and I’ve said this before—it is all connected.

I think the real reason wellness hasn’t become a burning platform with employers is the magnitude of it. To be really impactful, wellness is a way-of-life and it will impact corporate culture and may even change the way employees work.  This is daunting.  Management walking the walk? Not gonna happen. Stand-up desks for everyone? Big investment! Healthy food in the cafeteria?  Employees love French fries/donuts /insert your own unhealthy vice here. I have had employers tell me there is no point in subsidizing fitness because the people who use the subsidy would go to the gym anyway, so this doesn’t change the outcome.

Changing the outcome takes a missing link.

But what if it did?

What if your wellness plan encouraged one employee to become physically active? What if one employee chose a fruit or vegetable a few times a week instead of French fries? What if one employee decided to lose weight and one employee decided to lower their blood pressure? And what if one employee successfully quit smoking? And what if the consequences of these actions reduced the sick days of these employees by 1.5 days each?

Studies have shown that non-smokers take 1.5 fewer sick days per year than smokers, so this is not a random number. The preliminary results of the Ivey School of Business-Sun Life ROI of wellness study supports that 1.5 days of reduced absence for all employees participating in a wellness program. A reduction of 1.5 days absence for an employee earning $50,000 per year is a savings of almost $300.

Further, studies show wellness programs lead to more engaged employees and more engaged employees lead to better outcomes for customers. And better outcomes for customers lead to better corporate finances. All good and indicating there should be financial resources to support wellness.

”But,” you say, “we have all these tools for employees and they haven’t worked yet. The drug plan supports smoking cessation. Dieticians are covered under our plan. Our EAP helps employees deal with stress”.

The missing link between all the great things the benefit plan already has and employees is communication. How do employees find what they need when they need it?  How do they even know the tools you have can help them?  How do they know what tools the benefit plan already provides?

Booklets? Documents posted on Intranet sites? I don’t believe I have ever seen a benefit booklet that said, in plain language, what the employer could do for an employee with work-life balance issues or a new medical diagnosis or a mental illness that they needed to manage.

Workplace wellness takes employer commitment.

What if an employee could just ask Siri what the benefit plan could help with? Or if Google could provide a link to the relevant information on an employer’s site. Some employers have implemented portals for their employees to deliver this type of service. Some portals leverage information provided by their insurance company. They enable employees to get more complete service and a better plan experience.

Suppose you could tell the portal you need to lose weight and it would come back with suggestions appropriate to your goals. You need to lose 10 pounds? Our plan subsidizes gym membership (apply here) and here is some reference material. You need to lose 25 pounds? Our plan subsidizes Weightwatchers (apply here) and gym memberships (apply here) and here is some reference material. You need to lose 75 pounds? Our plan covers weight loss drugs with prior authorization. Here are the application forms and some additional information. In addition, our plan subsidizes Weightwatchers (apply here) and gym memberships (apply here) and here is some reference material.

Similarly, smokers would be directed to resources to help them quit smoking. Employees requiring surgery for a medical condition would automatically be directed to short-term disability claims forms.

You see where I am going with this. It is another big commitment for employers wanting to really support employees with a wellness culture, but an efficient way to provide support for a healthy lifestyle without concerns for employee privacy, as a good secure system can look after that. And for employers with multiple locations, it guarantees equitable access to information.

Wellness is more than a good idea. It is a proven strategy for reducing cost of absence and increasing employee engagement. Communication that makes it easy for employees to understand and access the support the benefit plan provides is a sound investment in the long-term viability of the program—and the long-term viability of your employees.

 

Your turn: What are the biggest obstacles facing your organization when it comes to effective wellness programs? Use the comment box below to share your story.

About the Author

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