Raising Wellness Awareness

As it turns out, "If you build it, they will come" doesn't hold true when it comes to employers' health and wellness programs. Here's how to get more workers into your programs so they can get more out of them.

By Maura C. Ciccarelli

Even though it's been estimated that up to 85 percent of organizations offer health and wellness benefits to employees, a recent Brodeur Partners survey showed that only 34 percent of 542 adult American workers said their employer offered such programs. Less than half the respondents -- 45 percent -- said they do participate or would if their employer had one.

With disappointing numbers like these, is it any wonder that HR professionals are struggling to make wellness programs appealing, relevant and as broadly accessible as possible? The payoffs for programs that provide a mix of measuring biometrics and offering employees challenges and incentives can be great. For employees, improving their eating and exercise habits and reducing risky behaviors such as tobacco use can improve their health and well-being and make them feel better about themselves and their company. Employers, meanwhile, get bottom-line boosts from reduced healthcare costs and improvements in employee engagement, retention and productivity.

"Clearly, there's a disconnect," says Andrea Coville, chief executive officer of Brodeur Partners, a strategic communications consulting company based in Boston. "Either employees aren't getting the memo about the programs that exist in their workplaces or they don't consider what their employers are offering to be true wellness programs."

Other recent surveys echo the Brodeur results. A 2014 Gallup survey said that, although 85 percent of U.S. employers with 1,000 or more workers offered wellness programs, only 60 percent of workers knew about those programs and only 40 percent participated.

HR professionals must determine why there are awareness and participation disconnects, and how organizations can overcome these barriers to participation.

Brodeur's study also dove deeper into awareness by demographic segments to determine the disconnects. Only 32 percent of Generation Xers (ages 35 through 54) and 24 percent of the baby boomers (55 years and older) segments indicated they had a workplace wellness program, compared to 41 percent for Millennials (ages 18 through 34). Furthermore, 45 percent of the Baby Boomers said they would not participate, compared to 36 percent of Generation Xers and 41 percent of Millennials.

Coville sees the varying demographic participation numbers as a sign that organizations may be having trouble communicating the value of wellness programs, especially to older workers who "are at higher risk for many conditions [and] are likely to deliver the biggest return on investment in a wellness program."

According to Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, senior consultant on the national leadership team of the Towers Watson's health-management practice in Boston, there are generational differences in trust and in the relative importance of privacy.

"I think there are wellness programs that can be compelling to Boomers as well as Gen X and Millennials," he says. "That's one more reason why you need pretty flexible programs, so that individuals can grab portions of programs that seem most relevant to them."

As for why some wouldn't participate, 50 percent of all workers told Brodeur they were concerned about their healthcare data being kept private, 31 percent doubted that the program would help them and 19 percent lacked confidence that the employer could deliver on wellness program promises.

LuAnn Heinen, a vice president at the National Business Group on Health, a Washington-based 425-employer member association, says that her organization's members have reported seeing similar concerns, despite the fact that Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Americans with Disabilities Act privacy rules protect employee-health data from their employers, and that wellness-participant information is aggregated by third parties that run wellness programs to prevent sharing of identifiable information.

"We also know that some employees who don't participate in programs believe they can make changes on their own or don't need help," says Heinen. "Others feel they lack time, don't think it's convenient to participate or simply don't know enough to decide."

Heinen says the NBGH has identified three best-practice communication tactics to combat the barriers. The first is to encourage wellness champions and "super-users" to be vocal or provide testimonials. The second leverages social norms with real data that supports company goals and may surprise the audience, such as "60 percent of employees choose healthy entrees at least three days a week." Finally, short, creative "edutainment" videos can incorporate humor or sense of fun with their messages.

On-site clinic services, resiliency or mindfulness training, new healthy dining initiatives, exercise classes, walking programs or any other offerings that employees value can improve overall participation, she says.

Plus, morphing wellness programs into "holistic well-being programs" can help bolster overall participation. "Well-being includes not only physical health, but also job satisfaction, financial security, emotional health and social connectedness," Heinen says. "Instead of looking for an ROI on costs, more companies -- especially in this broader frame -- see their investment in employee health and well-being as one that is tied to overall business outcomes: recruitment, retention, customer satisfaction and revenue growth. It's a fit with broad trends: rising Millennials and an increasingly global workforce."

Sander Domaszewicz, an Orange County, Calif.-based principal with Mercer who specializes in healthcare, consumerism and health management, says he has seen that broadening accessibility -- and even including spouses or partners -- are good ways to build an overall culture of health and spur the participation rate.

One of his clients, a nationwide restaurant chain, was struggling with its wellness program participation. Sure, upper level corporate folks were taking part, but in the restaurants themselves, part-timers and shift workers were less likely to engage in the program. The first step was a simple survey to gauge awareness and why they were or weren't participating, which helped the program managers see where the gaps were.

They changed the dynamic by increasing awareness through traditional communication channels (posters, flyers, emails, personal mailers, etc.) as well as by offering face-to-face, onsite biometric screenings to all employees, instead of just corporate managers. Then, it became a team activity for all employees in every location to have access to screenings. "The program became very visible to folks and they could do it as a team," says Domaszewicz. "They were able to increase their variable folks from below 30 percent to over 60 percent."

As for offering programs to spouses and partners, that was a real win, he says.

"It was no longer just a thing that the employee could do, but they could have that support/peer pressure from their significant other," he says. "It increased the awareness and visibility and willingness of the employee to engage if they also had a partner in crime to do this with."

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Sep 16, 2015
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