Wellness Programs Expand Beyond Physical Health

Holistic well-being includes financial, emotional and social factors

By Greg Goth Dec 11, 2015
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Holistic approaches to promoting employee health, happiness and engagement are gaining momentum for 2016. These initiatives encourage well-being beyond physical health, which has been the traditional focus of corporate wellness programs, by emphasizing factors such as social and community connections, retirement planning, and financial literacy.

Promoting well-being, broadly defined, is part of a burgeoning trend within employer-provided wellness programs, according to Jonathan Edelheit, president of the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based Corporate Health and Wellness Association (CHWA), a nonprofit trade association with 1,000 employer members.

“I think it’s definitely a gut feeling right now, asking questions like ‘Is productivity improving?’ and ‘Are there different things we can look at that show wellness programs can work?’ because it is very difficult to pinpoint return on investment [ROI]” from wellness program spending, Edelheit said, noting results of a CHWA recent member survey. “While ROI is a big focus, there’s also a shift away from ROI, saying we need to focus just on getting employees engaged, getting them healthy.”

At least one national wellness recognition award program is now codifying these new elements. The parameters of the nonprofit National Business Group on Health (NBGH) Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles Award will be expanding for the first time since its 2005 inception beyond physical health and wellness. For 2016, the award program will address a broader definition of well-being, including financial, community and social well-being; a greater emphasis on resilience and emotional health; and a focus on how health and well-being affect business performance.

“We've been thinking about it for the last couple of years and the time seemed right,” said NBGH Vice President LuAnn Heinen, who has overseen the award since its beginning. Over time, Heinen said, the big picture concept of what a successful wellness program is has evolved, and it was time to recognize that in the award’s benchmarks.

“One of the trends we are seeing, and something the application hopes to facilitate, is a frame on well-being that cuts across organizational functions,” Heinen said. “The levers to improve well-being extend beyond health and wellness—for example, career development, retirement planning, voluntary benefits, and even to safety and corporate social responsibility.”

Wellness Leaders Already on Board

The new criteria for the NBGH award will draw both existing employee benefits and new services into the redefined “well-being” fold. Some of the previous winners of the award have already demonstrated this new approach. For example, in the area of financial well-being:

  • Pittsburgh-based UPMC Health Plan, which has won the award’s platinum-level prize six times in the past seven years (and gold in the remaining year), has included financial security elements centered on retirement planning in its wellness offerings for two years.

  • Nashville-based Vanderbilt University (and its affiliated medical center), a three-time gold winner, has long offered financial perks such as tuition benefits for employees’ children and health insurance premiums banded by salary range.

  • Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes is offering educational video modules on the intricacies of its health savings and health reimbursement accounts. Participants in the Pitney Bowes Healthy Rewards program can earn points that convert to cash benefits for watching three of four such videos. “We thought, coinciding with our open enrollment time frame, it was the perfect place to get people comfortable with the finances in their health care coverage,” Mary Bradley, director of health care planning at Pitney Bowes, said.

Inching Toward Metrics

Given the expanded focus in its criteria, the deadline for the 2016 NBGH award has been extended to May 12, 2016, an extension from previous years’ March deadline, and winners will be recognized at the group’s annual September conference instead of June, when the award has usually been bestowed, Heinen said.

“That allowed us to give companies more time to apply, which seemed especially helpful in a year when the application was significantly revised,” she said.

Because the revision will call for completely new metrics, measuring the effectiveness of wellness programs could take some time, said Stephen Doyle, senior director of strategic health management solutions at UPMC Health Plan.

“These can be difficult things to measure, not because they can't be measured, but because there aren't established standards,” he said, noting that measuring aspects such as “financial security engagement” and “social connectedness” will take some thought.

Redirecting Efforts

For that reason, Heinen said, past award contenders and winners “may take a year off to think about [the new award focus], so we may have a smaller applicant pool. We know there are companies that are enthusiastic and we have heard from them. For others, in some cases it's like redirecting a battleship. Nobody turns on a dime.”

Ridgefield, Conn.-based Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, a gold-level winner of the NBGH award every year since 2008, says that addressing the new criteria will fall naturally in step with its own expanded well-being focus.

“We were very prepared, as we have always taken a holistic approach to the well-being of our employees,” said Jamie Eden, the company's senior vice president of human resources. “We offer programs and benefits that help our employees in a number of areas, including physical health, social well-being, work/life balance and financial planning.”

For 2016 and 2017, for instance, Eden said the company’s wellness programs will emphasize employee happiness. New topics within that focus will include mindfulness, sleep, relaxation, self-discovery, positivity, social connectedness, gratitude and acts of kindness.

The new NBGH award criteria, he said, “is in step with our happiness focus for 2016 and 2017, and mirrors trends that we’re seeing in the market.”

Greg Goth is a freelance health and technology writer based in Oakville, Conn.

Related SHRM Articles

Five Best Practices for Workplace Wellness, SHRM Online Benefits, November 2015

‘Integrated’ Well-Being Initiatives Yield Healthy Results, SHRM Online Benefits, March 2015

Why Employee Well-Being Matters to Your Bottom Line, SHRM Online Benefits, November 2009

Related SHRM Report

Promoting Employee Well-Being: Wellness Strategies to Improve Health, Performance and the Bottom Line, SHRM Foundation, October 2011

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