Healthier Wellness Communications

Employees aren't getting enough information about their employers' wellness programs and other benefits, a new survey shows. Experts share innovative ways to heal the employee disconnect.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013
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Employees don't know nearly as much as they should about benefits packages, healthcare reform and wellness programs, according to the results of a Jellyvision Lab survey, which polled 400 workers at companies with more than 2,000 employees.

"Subject matter experts make a lot of assumptions, because they know too much," says Harry Gottlieb, founder of Chicago-based Jellyvision, an interactive marketing company.  "We have to come at it from the point of view of the receiver as opposed to communication coming from the person who's presenting it."

Companies rolling out a wellness program to a large audience might want to consider some of these ideas before preparing a one-size-fits-all presentation.  "Just because they're there, they may not be paying attention," says Gottlieb, noting that the most helpful ways to talk to employees about wellness involve more personal interaction with experts. According to the survey, only 13.8 percent of employees prefer a live presentation as a way to get information about their benefits.

A personal touch has been the key to McCarthy Building Companies Inc.'s award-winning wellness program, says Lisa Sanders, director of compensation and benefits. In May, the employee-owned company was recognized as a Platinum-Level Fit-Friendly Worksite by the American Heart Association for helping employees eat better and move more. Headquartered in St. Louis, the company boasts more than 100-percent participation from their 1,600 full-time employees (and some ex-employees) in some type of wellness activity, preventative screening, physical activity, etc).

"The thing that's made us most successful is what we've communicated, not how," says Sanders, noting that cost-cutting is important to her employees' culture. "We provide some of the best benefits in the construction industry, but with healthcare reform increasing costs, we talk to our employees about the cost benefits of staying healthy."

McCarthy's "Build for Life" campaign was launched in 2010 as a comprehensive wellness program that focuses on four key areas: awareness, prevention, activity, and lifestyle and stress. In 2012, McCarthy partnered with a wellness vendor, Vitality, to provide an interactive, personalized program. "Vitality takes into account each individual's overall health, lifestyle and risk factors," says Sanders. She adds that personal wellness goals are established and achieved with cost-savings on insurance premiums and other rewards along the way.

In addition to employees, McCarthy's wellness program is offered to spouses and domestic partners. "That was critical to getting everyone engaged, because medical claims were coming more from the families, not our actual employees," says Sanders.

The Jellyvision survey reiterates her point. "88.6 percent want family members included, because many benefits include family members," says Gottlieb. "We offer benefits because we want to attract and retain better talent, and benefits make sure the talent is productive. A huge part of that is the influence of family members. If your spouse is listening to you and what you're doing at work, that will affect them.  Providing benefits to their family members but not connecting with the family members is a huge missed opportunity."

The Internet is a way to reach into the home and interact directly with family members, notes Gottlieb. "Focus on specifically targeting communication to spouses and family members in a personalized way, so they know the benefits are there for them, too," he advises.

Some companies even open their onsite facilities to family members, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health in Washington. "Texas Instruments invited kids to a summer fitness camp, which their parents loved."

IBM uses pre-commitment to get employees to boost participation, says Heinen. "At open enrollment they tell you about programs for next year, and making that commitment gets people to do the right thing, because they signed up for it."

Healthcare reform concerns often go unaddressed, according to the survey, but McCarthy employees are told the facts. "We tell them what the impact is," says Sanders. "It was going to cost us $2.2 million in taxes alone. We could reduce benefits or lower costs, so we lowered costs. When we did our analysis this year, the tax amount is down to $1.5 million by lowering our claims. In 2013, our premiums were essentially flat. No changes in our cost, despite the fact we have additional costs with healthcare reform."

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Showing employees dollar amounts has proven powerful motivation. "We hit a population that was either at-risk, high-risk or has diabetes. We showed them the cost of claims is about $1,400 for those who don't have diabetes and almost $20,000 a year for those who have the disease. Prevent it, and it has an impact on your health as well as a dollar impact."

Share success stories and demonstrate achievements. "This has had a huge impact," says Sanders, explaining that those who achieved platinum status this year received a $50 jacket. "The people who hit platinum weren't the healthiest," she says. "They were overweight, but they hit that by making a change and focusing on the right things." Apparently, a little peer pressure goes a long way.

Lotteries have been found to be an effective motivation, according to Kevin Volpp, MD, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Leonard Davis Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. He co-authored a study titled, "The Impact of Alternative Incentive Schemes on Completion of Health Risk Assessments," published last year in the American Journal of Health Promotion. The lottery system gave teams of employees the chance to increase their rewards by boosting their whole group's HRA completion rate.

"Lotteries are designed to take advantage of both the fact that people are not good at estimating probabilities and that they can anticipate the regret they would feel if they don't win something they could have easily won," says Volpp, noting that it's also successful at increasing weight loss.

Employers need to take advantage of the full suite of today's communication services, including social media, blogging, texts and emails, says Los Angeles-based employment attorney Spencer Hamer of Michelman & Robinson. "Some employers are still stuck in an older era where benefits are communicated by handbooks and annual benefit meetings, but things have changed, and more dynamic communications with employees should be considered," he says, before adding a word of caution.

"It's easy to forget that these are all communications that could have potential legal ramifications. You think you're using new methods along with traditional methods, but you need to sit down in advance and decide what exactly you want to communicate. Control the message and understand what's being communicated."

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