The Next Step for Wellness

Experts say a workplace that offers programs geared toward employees' financial and social well-being, not just their physical health, will lead to better outcomes.

Monday, January 21, 2013
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As always, a new year brings new resolutions -- to lose weight, get fit, stop smoking. Although plenty of employers offer programs intended to help their workers stick with those resolutions, recent evidence suggests those programs will have more impact if they're delivered in a "more holistic" manner.

"People are made up of so much more than their healthy behaviors and physical health," says Lindsey Ellen Sears, executive director and principal investigator at Healthways, a Franklin, Tenn.-based healthcare company. "We need to adopt a broader perspective -- to look at elements of their social lives, emotional health, how they interact with the workplace and the communities they live in."

A workplace that offers programs geared toward employees' financial and social well-being, not just their physical health, will lead to better outcomes, she says.

Healthways recently completed a year-long pilot program with a Fortune 100 company that had been struggling with high healthcare costs, lost productivity and turnover among its employees. The company had approached Healthways because it wanted to find a better way of engaging its employees to improve their health, and was concerned that focusing on health risks alone was not the answer, says Sears.

Healthways administered its Well-Being Assessment tool, which is based on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (created in 2008 in partnership with Washington-based Gallup), to a subset of employees at the company. The WBA measures a broad range of physical, financial, career, community and "social-emotional" factors.

After completing the WBA, the employees were then directed to a portal created by Healthways that let them create a "personalized well-being plan" based on the results of their WBA score. The portal included access to coaches and other experts to "encourage, inform and motivate" employees to reach their well-being goals, says Sears.

One year after the employees completed the WBA, they were assessed again. The results? The proportion in the highest well-being group increased from 16 percent to 20 percent, while the overall proportion of employees in the two highest well-being categories rose from 49 percent to 55 percent.

Healthways' research has found that, compared to employees who score highly in well-being measures, employees with low well-being have four times the odds of visiting the ER, and are 4.1 times likelier to have short-term disability days and 2.2 times likelier to have high claims costs. These employees are also significantly less likely than their high well-being counterparts to be top performers or to stay with the company.

Employees who score highly in well-being are also significantly less likely to be absent from work than other employees, says Sears.

Other efforts are under way around the country to measure well-being. Late last year, Johnson & Johnson's Wellness and Prevention division announced the Lake Nona Life Study, which will evaluate the health and wellness of participating residents, employers, employees and students in Lake Nona, Fla., over the course of multiple years, focusing on the link between health, wellness, longevity and quality of life.

People who have strong social ties with their friends and families, who feel their financial situation is under control, who take care of themselves and feel healthy are more likely to be productive and engaged at work and less likely to be absent than colleagues who score lower, says Sears.

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Companies are starting to take a more holistic view of employee health, with the understanding that factors such as financial and social well-being can have a major impact on a person's health, says Collette Ellis, founder and CEO of InStep Consulting in New York.

Well-being measurement is "a continuation of the evolution we've seen in worksite wellness," says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health in Washington. "It's a logical extension of where we've been, and where we should be going."

Wellness was originally focused on so-called "modifiable risk factors" such as tobacco use and unhealthy weight, she says.

"As companies started working on getting people to change those risk factors, they got to thinking why some people aren't receptive to changing them, even though it's clearly the right thing for them to do," says Heinen. "That's where figuring out what motivates people comes into play. You start to broaden the lens and take a more macro view."

People who are in dire financial straits or dealing with serious family issues are less likely to comply with healthy behaviors, she says.

"If the house is burning down, you're not going to be fixing a salad," says Heinen.

Providing access to employee-assistance programs and on-site courses on "financial wellness" can help, says Ellis. Meanwhile, websites such as and, which help users manage workplace fitness challenges, can be effective community-building tools in the workplace, she says.

"These sites can spur engagement by encouraging employees to motivate each other," she says. "It's important to encourage participation with a carrot, not a stick, and the community aspect can be one of those positive motivators."

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