The effectiveness of employee wellness programs depends greatly on how well a program is designed and aligned with workers’ needs and abilities to access what is offered, health experts agreed.
“It’s like any other product or service – some are excellent and some are lousy,” said Ron Z. Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and a vice president at IBM Watson Health.
For workplace wellness programs to be effective, companies need to look at their program “as a direct-to-consumer offering,” Goetzel said, with employees as their market.
If employees don’t buy the employer’s goal of helping them lead a healthier lifestyle and see how the program is going to help them personally, it’s not going to be effective, said Goetzel, who analyzed the results of a 2015 survey on workplace wellness programs conducted by the Transamerica Center for Health Students.
The survey’s takeaway: Most U.S. workplaces offer employee wellness programs and most employers believe that those programs are beneficial. More than three-quarters of employers who offer wellness programs and responded to a survey said they saw a positive impact from those programs.
Employers said the programs resulted in good outcomes for employee health (83.6 percent), performance and productivity (83.3 percent) and health care costs (73.6 percent).
In fact, 13.3 percent of business respondents reported offering comprehensive wellness programs, a percentage well above the 6.9 percent reported when the last federally funded survey was released in 2008.
Over 70 percent said they offered health screening; roughly 64 percent offered health education; and nearly 64 percent provided physical and social workplace environments that supported employee health.
Steps toward wellness
Knowing that health care workers are among the most stressed employees, Anne Arundel Medical Center in Maryland has revamped its physical health-focused wellness program into a “WellBeing” framework, said Jamie Heinmiller, a specialist with the program.
The WellBeing program still focuses on helping employees achieve good health and the energy they need daily. But it also provides resources for professional, social and community engagement and for budgeting and management of personal finances.
The medical center’s policy limits email sent between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. to emergency matters only. And some departments have set up “relaxation stations” with finger massagers and stretch bands at hand to help.
Convenience and communication are important for getting workers to tap what wellness programs can offer, said Heather Chilcot, a former marketing vice president and now owner of the recently opened Core Cycle Studios north of Baltimore.
Within days of classes starting at her studio, Chilcot received calls from potential clients interested in the corporate wellness options her business offered. Seeing the opportunity, Chilcot crafted “express” classes for nearby employees to exercise and comfortably get back to work, showered and refreshed.
It’s about “creating a balance within their schedule,” she said.
Marketing the program
While about 80 percent of employers who responded to the Transamerica survey said they offered employee wellness programs, responses from about 1,800 workers in a separate random sample suggested that many employees are not aware or taking advantage of resources their employers offer.
Just 45 percent of workers said they were offered wellness programs at work, and of those, 54.7 percent said they participated.
There is some evidence that financial incentives can be effective to get people to participate, and sometimes, to make healthy changes, such as stopping smoking.
But researchers are still looking for evidence of what works to get people to change lifelong habits such as poor diet and lack of exercise, Goetzel said.
Company leaders and mangers can influence workers to lead healthier lifestyles by visibly participating in wellness programs and supporting a healthier work culture, he said.
Few companies, mostly large ones, calculate whether wellness programs net a return on their investment. Some have claimed about $3 saved for $1 spent. More say they have seen real, but harder to quantify, value from their investment in wellness programs over three to five years.
It is difficult for many organizations to track return on their investment in wellness programs, said Evren Esen, director of workforce analytics at the Society for Human Resource Management, a 285,000-member society for HR professionals.
Most of the benefit does not come right away and is best delivered by well-designed efforts that focus on “big-ticket” issues such as improving cardio-vascular health, reducing high blood pressure, avoiding cancer risks and better nutrition and exercise on a sustained basis, Esen said.
“Quick fix” and competitions do little to effect positive change, particularly if workplaces and their cultures don’t do enough to support good health, such as offering flex time, providing healthy foods in company cafeterias and vending machines and prohibiting smoking on-site, Goetzel said.
Creating a “culture of health,” involving employees and incorporating what employees value in crafting a wellness program can help wellness programs succeed, he said.