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When Wellness Programs Don't Work

Towers Watson data suggests that companies are increasingly committed to wellness initiatives, but struggling to boost employee participation. Experts say employers and HR should start by getting a better grip on what type of wellness offerings their workers actually want and need.

Monday, January 4, 2016
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It's not that companies don't want employees to take advantage of wellness programs. It's that they haven't quite figured out what employees want out of wellness programs.

That seems to be one of the key takeaways from some recent Towers Watson research. In the New York-based consultancy's new Staying@Work survey, for example, three-quarters of 1,669 U.S. employers indicated that their commitment to employee wellness and well-being will "increase" or "significantly increase" in the next three years.

That's the good news. The results of another recent Towers Watson study, however, aren't as encouraging.

The firm's Global Benefit Attitudes Survey found just one-third of more than 30,000 employees saying the well-being initiatives offered by their employers encouraged them to live healthier lifestyles, with 32 percent saying these programs don't meet their needs.

That same poll also saw just 50 percent of employees participating in a well-being activity or health management-related program. Individual program participation was lower, with 48 percent indicating they had undergone health risk and biometric assessments, and 22 percent reporting they had taken part in worksite diet or exercise-related events.

So, it would seem that employers are dedicating themselves to bolstering their wellness efforts, but struggling to get employees engaged in these programs. Why?

As is often the case, ineffective and/or inadequate communication is part of the problem, says Shelly Wolff, a Stamford, Conn.-based senior healthcare consultant at Towers Watson.

http://www.hreonline.com/images/ThinkstockPhotos-452416337wellnessgonewrongL.jpg"Part of understanding what would boost participation is understanding your employees' preferences, in terms of communication," says Wolff.

"Offer alternative ways for employees to receive health information – through the company intranet, via email, instant messaging, a microsite, etc.," she says. "Try different ways to nudge employees when they need it, and ask employees if they'd like to receive reminders of wellness services."

For example, "if an employee says it's OK to nudge him or her when it's time for, say, a screening exam, ask the employee how he or she would like to be nudged," continues Wolff. "That's one way to think about communicating. As an employee, I would love that, actually."

Not all workers would feel the same, of course, and protecting employee privacy is a significant concern. The Towers Watson data points out as much: Nearly half (46 percent) of respondents to the Global Benefits Attitudes Survey said they don't want their employers having access to their personal health information, and 30 percent indicated they don't trust their employers to be involved in their health and well-being.

"Improving health is obviously a positive, but understand that there are privacy issues," says Wolff, adding that "we're starting to see more employers get employees' permission to communicate with them about wellness programs."

Beyond seeking employee input on how (or if) they'd like to be kept apprised of wellness services and offerings, simply asking them what type of wellness initiatives they would take advantage of is critical to boosting participation.

Relatively speaking, "we've really just started with the sort of 'standard' wellness programs that are available to all employees; programs to which everyone has the same access."

The problem, says Wolff, is that "one employee has different health needs and communication requirements than the next. You have to understand the differences in your employee population."

Many organizations, however, have yet to adopt a personalized approach as they attempt to grow their wellness programs, says Emily Noll, national director of wellness solutions at Leawood, Kan.-based CBIZ Human Capital Services.

"There's a disconnect between what employees need and the programs employers are offering," says Noll, citing the roughly one-third of workers who told Towers Watson that their employers' wellness initiatives don't meet employees' needs.

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"It seems like wellness programs are being prescribed, and companies aren't actually having conversations with employees about their well-being."

Of course, hard numbers should also play a part in tailoring wellness programs to fit your particular workforce's health needs.

"Employers are always talking about ‘meeting employees where they are,' " says Jeannette Fuente, director of programming, New Jersey, at the Northeast Business Group on Health,

 With respect to wellness, "that points to looking at your data in a way that informs what you offer, and helps you segment some of your population and figure out where they are in terms of their health," she says. "Data can be used to understand employees' health status, and to support evidence-based program planning by identifying health risks throughout the employee population," says Fuente.

Employers and HR, for example, can identify conditions that have the greatest impact on health costs and productivity, she continues.

"This data can be used to inform benefit design decisions that support targeted and customized programs for employees," adds Fuente, noting that some employers stratify their population as "risk," "moderate risk" and "high risk" and customize wellness offerings accordingly.

"This can be a good start for employers, and can provide a baseline to measure programs against."

Managers should be at the forefront of the effort to modify and improve wellness initiatives, adds Noll, who urges HR leaders to "understand that your managers are also your employees.

"Enlist them and get their input," she continues. "[Managers] have a stronger influence on their employees and their teams than the CEO does. I think a lot of wellness programs have focused on executive-level buy-in -- and that's certainly important in terms of funding and endorsing programs. But it's really the managers who can impact employees on a day-to-day basis."

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