Future Focus

Wellness: Health’s Keystone

By Jennifer Schramm Jan 1, 2010
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January CoverNo matter how health reform efforts in Congress and the Obama administration ultimately turn out, employers will still be closely involved in providing and paying for employee health care, giving them a major stake in employees’ health.

Even against a backdrop of recession-bred cost cutting, many business leaders have decided that investing in disease prevention and wellness programs really can help keep costs down.

The percentage of employers offering wellness resources and information appears poised to increase from the 72 percent reported in the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Employee Benefits survey report. Almost a quarter of HR professionals now report that their organizations offer rewards for achieving or completing certain health and wellness activities.

Employees, too, have strong motivation for participating in employer-sponsored wellness programs. In the results of a survey released in October 2009 by insurer MetLife, 46 percent of responding employees said they take part in wellness programs offered by employers.

The main reason employees take part, cited by nearly three-quarters of program participants, is that wellness programs are important for achieving their goal of good health. But financial issues also are strong motivators: Poor health is viewed as a major threat to one’s financial health.

An aging workforce and a rise in certain chronic health conditions are likely to keep HR professionals focused on wellness and prevention. Obesity, in particular, is a risk factor linked to chronic health conditions and viewed as a major cost factor.

Experts at the research institute RTI International, at the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that obesity now easily rivals smoking in associated medical costs, with the United States spending approximately $147 billion annually on health costs directly tied to obesity. Moreover, costs associated with obesity are expected to continue to increase in the coming decade.

In addition to demographic and public health trends, economic woes may challenge HR professionals trying to encourage healthier habits among employees. Stress tied to the recession and to concern about job security seems to lead to a rise in unhealthy behaviors.

An analysis of data from the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey by the not-for-profit Integrated Benefits Institute found that as the unemployment rate rises, employees who still have jobs tend to smoke more, drink more and exercise less.

Though these factors make prevention a much tougher job, they increase the potential return on investment that wellness programs can offer. With employers watching costs closely, HR professionals may be asked to develop more-robust metrics that demonstrate the savings that can be achieved through wellness programs. Moreover, they may be required to become even more innovative in the types of wellness benefits they offer.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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