Reappraising Wellness Programs

New Society for Human Resource Management research finds most employers offering roughly the same amount of benefits as in past years, but also sees some companies stepping back to reassess the utility of certain health- and wellness-related benefits.

By Mark McGraw                    

Make no mistake: Most employers are still keen on providing comprehensive benefits programs designed to help make employees healthier and happier.

Some of those same organizations, however, are dialing back on certain health- and wellness-related benefits that may not be reaping a solid return on investment.

Such are the findings of 2016 Employee Benefits: A Research Report by SHRM.

In recently polling 3,490 of its members, the Alexandria, Va.-based organization found the majority of respondents (60 percent) saying their companies offer the same amount of employee benefits that they did one year ago. One-third reported increasing the amount of employee benefits in that time.

Overall, just 7 percent of organizations reported decreasing benefits in the past year. Among them, 66 percent said they have reduced health-related benefits, with 19 percent saying the same about wellness-related benefits.

The benefits being trimmed include on-site flu shots, health coaching and 24-hour nurse hot lines, which could signal that companies are beginning to reevaluate and refine their wellness efforts, says Evren Esen, director of survey programs at SHRM.

"Many companies have had their wellness programs in place for a few years now," says Esen, "and they're taking a step back to assess them – what works well, what programs cost and what kind of programs are seeing lower utilization rates."

Emily Noll, national director of wellness solutions at Leawood, Kan.-based CBIZ Human Capital Services, shares Esen's view that most employers "are not deprioritizing wellness," but are "making necessary adjustments" to wellness programs.

Flu vaccinations, for instance, are now widely available outside of the workplace -- through employees' personal physicians as well as at grocery stores and other community retailers.

By eliminating such benefits, "employers can spend less time and money being the conduit for these services," says Noll, "and redirect funding to other wellness needs and benefits."

Employers also have "less tolerance for silos" in their benefits programs, she says, "and are doing a better job at minimizing duplicative services among vendors and using technology more effectively to direct employees to the right benefits at the right time."

 With respect to health coaching, for instance, some employers have turned to new, lower-cost technologies to lower the cost while engaging their low- and moderate-risk employee populations.

"This enables them to spend less overall or reallocate funds to high-touch resources, such as telephonic disease management programs, to a smaller segment of employees with costly, co-morbid conditions," says Noll, noting that "the ability to tailor wellness programs more specifically to individuals based on their risks and needs will also yield better outcomes."

 Many organizations have indeed begun to put more emphasis on cutting costs by eliminating or scaling back health and wellness initiatives that aren't measurably improving employees' lives, says Mike Thompson, president and CEO of the Washington-based National Business Coalition on Health.

"It's an asset-allocation issue," says Thompson. "For years, employers have wanted to see the payback [from] the wellness programs that they offer."

 And, when specific wellness-oriented benefits go underutilized, "some companies start second-guessing whether [these benefits] have served the purpose for which they [initially] put them in," he says.

 HR and benefits leaders at organizations considering cuts must weigh factors such as demographics and health risks within the workforce, says Esen.

"It's always important to look at what employees value and what they're using," she says. "Every organization is going to be different in terms of demographics. So you always want to make sure that you get a good sense of what appeals to employees and what doesn't."

 And, HR leaders can't sit back and wait for employees to wander into their offices with this information.  

"Not everyone is going to go to HR, and HR won't just hear about everyone's preferences," says Esen. "So conducting focus groups, surveys and so on are good ways to look at what energizes employees to participate."

 She also encourages employers to "try different things" to give wellness program participation a boost.

"Not everything is going to work. For example, some companies have tried getting employees together for lunchtime walks, or for yoga during the day. Don't be afraid to tweak the hours, and see if it works better, say, after work."

 When it comes to such wellness-related events, "employees may be willing to engage if they think it's going to be fun, or if they see others doing it. So you have to look at wellness through that lens and find different ways to motivate employees," says Esen. "Some may be motivated by gift cards, others may be motivated by time off. [The right mix of] wellness programs is something that organizations definitely have to tweak and tinker with to find. And it will always be changing."

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Jul 26, 2016
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