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Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

High Or Low Impact?

If you can’t do squats in those pants, don’t wear them to work.

That’s the sentiment of a growing number of employers that have bought into the concept of corporate wellness.

Programs aimed at encouraging workers to be healthier have boomed in popularity over the last five years. The rapid adoption of corporate wellness programs can be attributed to everything from a growing health-conscious population to a shift in corporate culture (out with stuffy suits, in with Google slides). One undeniable influence is health care reform, which is pushing employers to brainstorm creative ways to save cash on their insurance premiums.

Wellness programs have been touted to do just that: keep employees healthy and, in turn, potentially reduce premium rates. But do they work? That depends on the approach.

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Setting the Bar

For a wellness program to be effective, two things need to happen: a return on investment for employers and the improved health of participating employees.Wellness programs vary from company to company, but most include programs to help employees stop smoking, lose weight, and keep tabs on other health risks. The idea is to keep an eye out for red flags that might signal chronic health issues down the road.

“The healthier the workforce, the fewer the claims,” said Patrick Casinelli, principal at insurance brokerage Cavignac & Associates. “And less claims mean lower premiums.”

It seems like a no-brainer, which may be the reason corporate wellness programs have boomed in recent years. In a 2015 report, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 81 percent of large employers (200 or more workers) and 49 percent of small employers are now offering wellness programs to employees.

Not only are companies offering these programs, but they’re sticklers about enforcing them. Some companies use a carrot approach, offering discounts on health insurance premiums to employees who participate. Others use the stick approach, penalizing poor health behaviors by charging people more for maintaining bad habits like smoking.

$8 Billion Sector

Despite the method with which these programs are enforced, corporate wellness (an $8 billion industry, by the way) has come under fire for being ineffective.

One particular (and oft-cited) study by the nonprofit think tank RAND Corp. found that workplace wellness programs did not help people stop smoking, lose weight or save money in a “statistically significant” way.

But it’s important to note that although it is frequently referenced in the argument against corporate wellness today, the RAND study was published in 2013, and the employer survey segment was completed in 2012. Corporate wellness, as an industry and a trend, was still in its infancy at the time the survey was completed.

Moreover, studies trying to calculate the effectiveness of wellness programs could be flawed from the start.

“It’s hard to quantify from a hard dollars perspective whether wellness programs are working, because we can’t say definitively that we’ve prevented a heart attack just because someone participated in a wellness program,” said Roshi Fisher, wellness consultant for Lockton Insurance Brokers. “What we can do is look at how a company is managing the health risks of their employees.”

If corporate wellness programs do their job of reducing the likelihood of preventable lifestyle-related diseases, then they will reduce long-term health costs for employers, Casinelli added.

Evolving Industry

As data streams in telling corporate wellness firms what works and what doesn’t, the industry is beginning to evolve.

“One of the biggest problems with wellness programs is that the boring programs tend to be ineffective,” said Danna Korn, co-founder and CEO of Sonic Boom Wellness. “It gives corporate wellness a bad name. Studies say there’s not that much engagement, or these programs don’t really improve healthy habits … but that’s because so many programs are done poorly. You can’t ask employees to take a self-reported health assessment and do an annual biometric test, and then call that a wellness program. You have to make it socially contagious and fun so that people really want to participate in the program.”

Sometimes, that means adopting programs and challenges that modify an employee’s lifestyle.

At Cavignac & Associates, that can mean CrossFit-style workouts during lunch breaks. At medical device firm, ResMed Inc., it can mean free salads on Wednesdays or Kettle Sweat classes in the company’s backyard.

The biggest way to get employees on board with wellness programs, Korn said, is to “gameify” health and wellness. That doesn’t mean pedometer competitions (“whoever takes 10,000 steps first wins!”). It means incorporating real strategy into wellness challenges.

“True game mechanics need to be taken into account when designing these programs,” Korn said. “You can’t do boring competitions and expect people to care or get involved. Mix things up, and it will make things far more interesting and engaging.”

Victory through Variety

Gameifying wellness may be too time-consuming for some companies (which is why many hire corporate wellness firms such as Sonic Boom to gameify for them), but grassroots efforts within a company can work too, said Nikki Kelly, who manages employee benefits and wellness at ResMed.

The most effective approach for ResMed was to diversify the available options for employees to stay healthy.

“Not everyone wants to run a marathon or do boot camp classes in full view of everybody in the cafeteria,” Kelly said. “So we offer meditation classes and a community garden for stress relief, for example. We try to keep in mind that wellness doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. Our job is to encourage positive steps toward a healthy lifestyle while bringing awareness.”

Casinelli said at his office, it’s all about sustainability and consistency.

“You can’t do a ‘Biggest Loser’ competition once a year and call that a wellness plan,” Casinelli said. “That’s not changing anyone’s lifestyle. Weight and lifestyle choices are an ongoing battle. But if you set up a plan that tracks biometrics, and then connects you with a wellness coach when those red flags go up, then that engages the employee and holds them accountable.”

Team Building

But there’s more to corporate wellness than lower health care costs.

“Yes, people will get sick less and health care costs might come down,” Korn said. “But you also have to consider the value on investment rather than just a return on investment. We’re bringing morale up, people are competing and collaborating and having fun together, so teamwork and camaraderie improve. Absenteeism goes down, and productivity goes up.”Casinelli agreed.

“Wellness is about employee productivity and engagement,” Casinelli said. “It’s hard to judge (the return on investment) for those things, but if your employees are happier and more engaged, it clearly helps the overall organization.”

A lively corporate wellness program is now considered a company perk rather than a health benefit, Korn said, as more companies see it as a retention tool and a selling point to employees.

“We want and need a high-performing organization, and we believe an engaging wellness program is the way to attract and retain that kind of talent,” Kelly said.


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