Hidden Benefits of Wellness Programs

Instead of simply focusing on dollars saved and pounds lost, a new study suggests HR professionals should expand their focus on weight-management programs to see how they can impact other critical factors such as employee engagement and retention.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016
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A company's wellness program can be a great tool to help overweight workers on the road to wellness. But can wellness programs also benefit participants who are already healthy?

That was just one of the questions on the mind of Tzeyu Michaud when she set out to begin her graduate project at the University of Minnesota, in which she led a research study designed to determine the effectiveness of the school's weight-management program.

In 2014, Michaud and several University of Minnesota faculty members analyzed the health data of the program's 1,500 participants between 2010 and 2012. They not only focused on cost, but also participants' quality of life. While the program's direct costs amounted to $164,000 each year, the results showed lower healthcare expenditures for participants when compared to non-participants. Specifically, the program saved approximately $3.7 million -- or $4.65 million when including "quality-adjusted life-years" -- over the three-year period. Annual savings totaled $876 per participant but dropped to $828 when employee spouses and dependents were included.

"From our experience, weight-management programs improve health and save money, but it might take a while to have this impact," says Michaud, now a post-doctorate research associate at the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. "[They] go well beyond saving money. We found that the quality of life improved for all participants -- not just those who lost weight."

That's good news for HR professionals whose weight management and other types of wellness programs have been under scrutiny for generating minimal, if any, return-on-investment. According to RAND's recent Wellness Programs Study, which included almost 600,000 employees at seven employers, wellness programs barely move the needle on decreasing healthcare spend.

Perhaps one of the key messages of the university's study is that HR professionals should expand their focus beyond healthcare costs to how wellness programs impact other critical factors such as quality of life or employee engagement and retention. By doing so, they can capture the full value of wellness initiatives and evolve wellness into well-being programs that help shape employee behavior across social, emotional, physical and financial dimensions. the director of wellness at Cambridge Consulting Group, an employee benefits consulting firm in Royal Oak, Mich., Maria Hicks says that wellness programs typically generate cost savings several years after being implemented.

"The key [to this UMN study] was length," she says. "When it comes to wellness, I always recommend having a long-term outlook on the program. Three years is when you'll start seeing healthcare cost savings."

Although weight-management programs are popular in the workplace, Hicks supports wellness programs that address employee health from a more holistic perspective versus targeted approach. Instead of encouraging workers to lose weight over an eight-to-12-week period to win a prize, for example, consider a program that focuses on helping individuals integrate healthy practices such as exercising or eating healthy foods into their daily lifestyles. This approach avoids the stigma attached to participating in weight-management programs and makes weight loss a natural byproduct of adopting healthy habits.

"Many won't participate in a program that has the word weight in it, or if they have to step on a scale," says Hicks.

Meanwhile, she says, HR professionals typically want unhealthy employees to participate in wellness initiatives. However, some simply won't budge regardless of the incentive. Still, she says, HR can work from behind-the-scenes by creating standing workspaces for employees, encouraging managers to host walking meetings or 10-minute walk breaks, or even offering paid time off for preventive medical exams.

However, HR can't do this alone. She suggests surveying employees about their wellness-program preferences and then form a cross-functional wellness committee whose members can support employee needs, coordinate activities and serve as wellness ambassadors throughout the organization.

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"I've seen too many HR people try to do it themselves," Hicks says. "The wellness program fizzles out and they get burned out."

Other times, it's the social components incorporated into wellness programs that keep them alive and well, says Stephanie Pronk, senior vice president at Aon Hewitt in Minneapolis, who also leads its national health-transformation team.

She says the results of the UMN study echo what many HR professionals have already discovered: When program participants feel connected and supported to reach a common goal, they tend to change behaviors.

"It's taken corporate America a little bit longer to get that kind of component embedded in terms of behavior change," Pronk says, explaining that HR professionals are trying to create the DNA often needed in wellness programs that makes people believe like they can change their behavior. "If you bring in a social component  . . . the results, enthusiasm and values it brings to the organization are noticeable. That social dynamic is an incredibly important piece."

Likewise, analyzing the broader value of wellness programs beyond health care costs presents HR with unique opportunities to maximize program participation and outcomes. It can link those values to the fabric of an organization, from finance to operations, and build a workplace environment that reflects wellness.

Pronk adds that wellness programs get a bad rap when best practices aren't put into place. They must be strategic, tactical and focused on both the organization's and employees' needs.

"Progressive companies have been doing this for a number of years," says Pronk. "Where the big shift is happening is going from wellness to well-being . . .  . It's finding the business issue, connecting to that, and doing it in a way where everybody in the organization believes in their contributions."

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