Understanding Workplace Wellness Programs

Workplace wellness programs are intended to improve the health of employees by reducing the incidence of preventable illness and decreasing days off for sick time; all wellness-programs-laptop-and-stethescopewhile lowering overall health costs to both the employer and the employee.  However, unless implemented correctly, they may not always fulfill their intended purpose.

A 2015 survey of nearly 2,000 firms by the Kaiser Family Foundation, reported that 49 percent of companies with fewer than 200 employees offer wellness programs and 81 percent of the larger ones do.

Examples of what a comprehensive wellness program may include are:

  • Health risk assessments and screenings
  • Health coaching and education
  • Unhealthy lifestyle interventions
  • Incentive packages for healthy habits
  • Communication plans with specialists

Notwithstanding the obvious advantages to employees, companies also benefit when employees are healthier, more enthusiastic, and more productive.  It is projected that the less they utilize their health benefits, the lower the resultant premiums are for the company. Yet, while this may be the theory, it is not always the reality.

Properly Administered Plans

A comprehensive wellness plan must be successfully implemented in order to be effective, which, according to Laura Linnan, head of the CDC-funded Workplace Health Research Network and professor of public health at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, only occurs in companies 7 percent of the time.

Properly administered programs report fewer on-the-job accidents, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, lower employee turnover rate, an easier time attracting top talent, and slower-growing medical costs than the industry average.

Even modest programs seem to excel in the area of teaching people to manage their chronic conditions such as diabetes, or when they provide disease screenings and management.  Weight loss programs and smoking cessation, along with gym memberships and coaching for personal health are good programs in the right hands.

The company that provides a health risk assessment questionnaire and a financial Health Photo Shows Medical Wellness And Self Careincentive to employees that complete it is recognized as having a health promotion program.  That is drastically different from a company that simply provides access to programs for weight control, smoking cessation, and free flu vaccines for employees and their families.  Unfortunately, both fall short of the modern companies that provide exercise facilities and showers, cafeterias with no junk food, and vending machines with regular selections, or even free, selections of healthy snacks.

Wellness is a six billion dollar industry that is being marketed to company executives, with exorbitant promises of monetary savings that in 93 percent of the cases will never materialize.  Executives may feel good because they are doing something, in essence; but ultimately if the plan is poorly administered, it will accomplish next to nothing, and in some cases, potentially cause harm.

What are the problems?

The difficulty arose when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA or ACA) allowed employers to offer 30 percent of the value of their benefits as incentives.  In many cases this lead to extreme, unnecessary, and non-voluntary screening procedures which were also not credited by the medical industry, and ultimately provided no benefit.  However, due to the high-stakes incentives being offered, employees felt obliged to comply.

The wellness program managers continue to sell as many procedures as the employer is willing to buy.  Consequently the program benefits are often tied to incentives requiring enrolled employees to achieve goals such as to lose weight or stop smoking, otherwise paying heavy penalties.

An obese worker who cannot participate, fails to achieve goals, or chooses not to participate, can lose 30 percent of their benefits, as can a smoker who simply can’t overcome their addiction.  Since that cost is now transferred onto the employee, the wellness program operators can report that 30 percent as a savings to management, which may show up on the bottom line.  However, it’s going to lead to unhappy employees who will find a company with a better medical plan and take their skills with them.

The Takeaway

Much of the savings of workplace wellness programs don’t begin to manifest themselves for at least two years, and sometimes three or more.  Organizations offering to undertake a workplace wellness program really need to understand exactly what they are offering their employees.

If we’re not going to see results for two or three years we need to see their success stories; we need to take it upon ourselves to talk to other businesses that they have worked with and discover whether they actually accomplished anything.  Was there a measurable improvement in overall employee health and attendance, or were the plan administrators the only ones to benefit from the transaction?

A successful plan makes it easier to keep good employees, attract new high quality employees, and ensure their longevity with your company for years to come.  It seems that a poorly executed plan or, in extreme cases, one that takes freedom away from employees, is worse than no plan at all.

A functional, well-administered workplace wellness program is an investment in quality of life.  Don’t accept the first one that comes along, and certainly, don’t choose the least expensive.  Research thoroughly and get full value for your program, keeping in mind the benefits and risks.


Fred Coon, CEO 

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