10 Steps for Wellness Program Success

By Stephen Miller Jul 1, 2009

NEW ORLEANS—"Certain components of a wellness program are critical to its success, and others are more fluff," said Don R. Powell, president and CEO of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine in Farmington Hills, Mich., during his June 29, 2009 concurrent session, “The 10 Essential Characteristics of Successful Worksite Wellness Programs,” held here in conjunction with the SHRM Annual Conference.

Powell provided a framework to help HR benefits managers keep their wellness initiatives targeted on the components most closely linked to return on investment (ROI).

He shared some statistics that highlight the value of these initiatives. While the ROI from wellness programs varies, a review of 72 studies published in the American Journal of Health Promotion indicated an average corporate wellness ROI of $3.48 per $1 when considering health care costs alone, $5.82 when examining absenteeism and $4.30 when both outcomes are considered.

In light of the growing shift in focus from treatment to prevention, Powell urged HR professionals not to view the health of their employees as a “cost” that needs to be “controlled” but as an investment in human capital, “just like the ‘cost’ of education and training.”

Ten tips he offered for making wellness programs work more effectively:

  1. Make it multi-component. Along with health assessment activities, provide communication materials, health coaching and group programs (weight loss, exercise, etc.). Communication materials can include newsletters, calendars, pocket planners, paycheck stuffers and brochure racks. Group programs can include “lunch-and-learns” and classes conducted by an instructor for a local hospital or wellness provider.
  2. Teach “demand management.” Wise consumerism includes seeking preventive care and avoiding unnecessary or routine use of hospital emergency rooms. "Approximately 55 percent of all emergency room visits are for non-urgent problems, and about 25 percent of all physician visits could have been treated at home," Powell said. "Demand can be managed by helping employees become more knowledgeable about when they need medical assistance and when they can take care of themselves."
  3. Present psychosocial issues. “Physical well-being is not just from the neck down,” Powell explained. Anger and depression management services can lower overall health costs since these conditions are triggers not only for absenteeism and lower productivity, but also for lower disease resistance and higher accident rates.
  4. Address high-risk and low-risk employees. In any given year, those who have chronic conditions tend to have health care costs from 100 to 500 times greater than the costs for healthy employees. But healthy today doesn't mean healthy tomorrow. Up to 20 percent of low-risk employees will move to a higher-risk category within one year, according to research at the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center. When an employee loses low-risk status, there is an additional cost of $350 per year.
  5. Manage the health care continuum. This includes wellness management for the healthy, risk management for the obese and hyper-tense, disease management for those with diabetes and asthma, and catastrophic illness management for cancer, critical injuries, etc.
  6. Use high-tech as an adjunct to high-touch. Many employees still relate more to printed materials, and intranets often aren't viewed by spouses and dependents.
  7. Maximize employee participation. Incentives appropriate to your employee population are part of creating a culture of health. These include gift cards, premium reductions or rebates, cash bonuses, merchandise, and health account contributions. Incentives can be tied to health risk assessments, safety programs, smoking cessation, exercise and weight management.
  8. Involve employees’ families. Studies indicate that spouses and dependents represent 70 percent of health care costs, and that women make 80 percent of health care decisions.
  9. Know the legal restrictions. These include limitations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. As a rule of thumb, participating in wellness programs should always be voluntary.
  10. Evaluate your program. Include metrics such as employee satisfaction, absenteeism and productivity/presenteeism.

“Worksite wellness programs are no longer a peripheral part of a company's HR activities, but are now a key component,” Powell said. “Successful organizations in the coming decade will embrace the concept of wellness and offer programs with characteristics that have been proved to lead to success.”


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