Everything You Need To Know About Employee Wellness Programs...

What they do do, what they don't do, what they should do...and what they will do.

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Corporate wellness programs have been all the buzz recently. And as a former employee in the employee benefits space...I know a thing or two about the ins and outs of these programs. Not too long ago, wellness programs in the workplace were a commodity...a thing of the future. But now, the near $19 billion dollar industry is more a norm now, than anything. According to this study by the RAND Corporation, over 80% of employers of 50+ have some sort of wellness plan in place.

What do they do?

Wellness programs were first introduced post-industrialization, and now are run by insurance companies, or TPA wellness program providers, to take head-on the declining wellness statistics in the country by addressing their prevalence in the workplace. As cases of chronic lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease and obesity rise, workplace wellness programs aim to act as preventable measures towards those ailments. Not to mention, their dual goal is to reduce the healthcare cost associate to the employer, of absenteeism, presenteeism, and insurance premiums based on the rating of their employee group.

And of course...to show your workers you care.

You may be familiar with a few popular components of employee wellness programs including onsite screenings, workplace challenges, onsite training and exercise classes, health risk assessments, healthy living education, diet assistance, fitness assistance, digital tracking apps, and even financial wellness plans....the list keeps going.

Now, you also may be wondering...with an industry of this size...do wellness programs work? Well, the answer isn't as simple as yes, or no. According to a study by Harvard, $3.27 in medical expenses were save for every $1 invested into wellness programs. Abesnteeism costs reduced by $2.73, and employee satisfaction was rated 'high', as these programs have shown to mitigate the effects of stress, and boost productivity.

Sounds like a yes to me.


What do they not do?

There have been many arguments that workplace wellness programs are still too 'segmented' (my opinion included). As they are intended to be an aid both in and out of the workplace...that's hardly the case. Not to mention, if you consider psychological and mental wellness, #mentalhealth issues are still the leading cause of disability and illness. That goes to say that if one is depressed or unhappy with their job, experiencing feeling of overwork and pressure, and is constantly subjected to increasing demands of their employment which leads them to burnout..what are a few healthy snacks in the break room going to do for that?

Consider this stat...this study from the National Bureau of Economic Research has overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of those who participate in wellness programs (or report any benefit from them at all) are those who are already-healthy employees. In other words, those who have already developed a healthy lifestyle and show no sign of chronic illness, and they're likely to already do these activities whether offered at the workplace or not. The programs might even alienate those who are dealing with health issues in the first place, because they are too ill or even embarrassed to participate or admit the struggle. This is contradictory given the fact that one large intention was to help prevent and mitigate prevalence and costs associated with chronic disease.

So to me, it seems that though some positive signs of improvement are being shown with such programs, the target market of who REALLY needs the help, is being overlooked. Sometimes the lunchtime yoga sesh or onsite messages seem more of just a now expected luxury, than a way to address the $1.7 trillion spent on patients with chronic disease in America.

What should they do?

Now comes the question, I'm sure, of...well then what should we do? I have quite a few answers for this. The first step, would be to develop programs that target exactly what chronic diseases are most prevalent in your employee base. Developing direct intervention programs have shown to reduce healthcare costs further, and more quickly than traditional 'catch all' programs. If you're concerned about the privacy question, most healthcare and diseases data is HIPAA protected and the exact names of those in question need not be known. However, that brings me to my next solution. At-home integration. What habits are exhibited at home are much more important than those at work, if you want the changes to last. Develop and taylor programs that have a component of 'permanent lifestyle' help..which could be anything from online tutorials for continuing education, or even offerings of or discounts on wellness services like fitness training, health coaching and dietitians/nutritionists.

Finally, my favorite solution...integration. As mentioned before, workplace wellness programs are 'assumed' to be integrated with behaviors outside the workplace. Furthermore, studies have shown that health habit change is more successful and sustained if supported by a community and environment that tailors to the changes. How do we accomplish that? Have the community by our side. It's been a long belief in mind that a fully integrated system of 'wellness incentives' would change lifestyle behaviors.

This would be accomplished by having everyone on our side...ie, insurance plans that pay for gyms, offer discounts on trainers, rewards programs that incentive and offer prizes for frequent shopping at healthy grocers. Or even rewards developed by changes in activity factors such as hitting a certain step count on your Fitbit, triggering a gain of 'points', which ads up to discounts at local healthy vendors.

What will they do?

For my favorite part...future innovations. There's no arguing that these programs are here to stay. Not only is it expected at places of employment by the job force, especially those in younger and millennial generations, but with the stiff cost of hiring competition, many workplaces are upgrading their offerings to attract the best of the best. Having said that, there are many health/wellness/healthcare trends on the horizon that will be leading to new structures of programs, and offerings of wellness by ever emerging companies.

Some new innovators coming into the space include Exuberancy, a start up whose sole focus is onsite wellness and fitness classes, tailored to the culture of the individual workplaces. As we know the tech boom is amidst and everything is going digital...Headspace is releasing a mobile app with employer purchase options for entire populations. Burnalong offers a more digital approach with an app designed to run virtual tutorials, fitness coaching, and challenges. Intelligent personalization, virtual programming, and social analytics will shape not only how programs are delivered, but how their data is used in formulating health care and recommendations.

For employers, be on the lookout for increasing attempts at making you a customer of the one of the many new start ups or vendors, and also be ready to pay a premium for these services as workplace wellness is being commoditized by trends and demand.

What side would you take on this heated argument? Stay tuned, and visit www.nikkicohnbyrd.com for more on healthy living and wellness trends you should know.

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