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Workers Want Rewards Beyond Good Health
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  4/4/2008

Good health, it seems, isn’t enough to keep employees committed to using wellness programs that are increasingly embraced by employers.

Nearly half of workers who have participated in wellness programs in the past three years admit that their commitment fades after a few years. Cash, gifts and extra vacation days, though, would motivate more than two-thirds to adopt healthier behaviors such as stubbing out a smoking habit, exercising and eating properly, according to a survey of 473 full- and part-time workers.

Workplace-based programs might be increasingly popular with employers, who view them as a tool to help control health care costs by promoting prevention and early intervention.

Only 30 percent of employees, though, currently participate or have participated in the past three years, according to results from an October 2007 telephone survey released March 31, 2008.

Also, just 35 percent of workers said they have access to employer wellness programs; about half of those who have access are enrolled in the programs.

“Employers and the benefits industry have to do a better job of increasing awareness about these programs,” said Tim Bireley, vice president of group medical for Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, which conducted the survey.

“Workplace programs can be simple, affordable and fun. Employee incentives can be as elaborate as offering a trip to Tahiti in exchange for exercising an hour each day or as basic as an extra vacation day for kicking a smoking habit,” Bireley said in the press release.

Most small employers see the value in implementing wellness programs, but, among the 82 percent who do, only 57 percent have implemented a wellness plan. Among midsize employers, 90 percent see their value, and 79 percent have such a program. Among large employers, 99 percent see their value, and 90 percent have a program.

There is “an enormous opportunity to educate small and midsize business owners about the benefits of wellness initiatives,” Bireley said.

Eighty-five percent of workers enrolled in a wellness program, or who participated in one during the last three years, ranked them “very effective” in promoting good health, the Guardian survey found.

“If most employees at companies large and small were actively participating in wellness programs, we might see a significant decline in the cost of medical care in the United States.”

The most commonly offered preventive care, at least according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2007 Benefits Survey of 590 HR professionals: on-site vaccinations, health screenings for high blood pressure and cholesterol, and programs targeting employees with chronic health conditions.

Insurance companies could help business owners reach employees more easily, the Guardian’s Bireley said, “by embedding gym membership and alternative medicine discounts into their health plans, or offering a free nurse line number that employees can use for preventative care.”

College graduates and the affluent are the most likely to have participated in a wellness program in the past three years. Workers with at least some college education, the Guardian survey found, tend to favor health insurance that covers complementary alternative medicine techniques such as:

  • Chiropractic services, 72 percent.
  • Nutritional counseling, 71 percent.
  • Acupuncture, 57 percent.
  • Herbalism/botanical medicine, 49 percent.
  • Homeopathy, 45 percent.
  • Reflexology and personal training, both 41 percent.
  • Osteopathy, 40 percent.
  • Yoga, 39 percent.
  • Pilates, 31 percent.

“Giving employees access to complementary alternative medicine services as part of a wellness plan is about providing them with more individual choice,” said registered nurse Susan O’Connor, assistant vice president of group medical at Guardian, in a press release.

The number of employers that cover some aspects of alternative medicine is increasing. A new report from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) that HR News reported on in January 2008 found that among 400 IFEBP members surveyed, nearly 34 percent covered acupuncture/acupressure in 2007, 13.5 percent covered massage therapy, and nearly 13 percent covered nutrition therapy. Chiropractic care saw a slight decline in coverage from 86 percent in 1999 to 82 percent in 2007.

SHRM’s benefits survey found that 80 percent of employers covered chiropractic care, 29 percent covered acupuncture/acupressure and 11 percent offered nutritional therapy.

On-site vaccinations, health screenings and preventive programs that targeted chronic health conditions were the most commonly offered preventive care, SHRM found.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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