The Right Ingredients Brew Wellness Program Success

Stress management and tech tools improve outcomes, but incentives are questioned

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS March 7, 2018

With the efficacy of workplace wellness programs being questioned, new research may help to explain why some efforts are successful and others aren't.

Offering stress-management counseling as a wellness initiative and getting organization leaders to promote wellness yielded a greater likelihood of achieving wellness goals—including positive effects on health care costs and higher employee participation rates—researchers found. Other studies show how technological tools can invigorate wellness programs, and how financial incentives can play a meaningful role if used appropriately.

Managing Stress

In its February report, A Closer Look: 2018 Workplace Wellness Trends, the nonprofit International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP), a provider of research and education to benefit plan sponsors, analyzed responses from 431 U.S. benefit managers surveyed last year.

The results showed that stress-management counseling improved the likelihood that a program would have positive results. IFEBP found that among organizations that encouraged stress management:

  • 53 percent noted improved employee engagement and satisfaction.
  • 45 percent saw a positive impact on health care costs.
  • 43 percent noticed health screening data improved.

"We need to look deeper at underlying causes" of stress, advised Jim Porter, president of StressStop, a stress-management training firm. "Once you start looking below the surface at issues like disorganization, financial concerns, time pressure and relationship problems, that's when you start getting at the root of most stress-related problems."

Leadership Support

IFEBP's survey also identified the importance of senior leaders' involvement in wellness initiatives:

  • 63 percent of companies that saw a positive effect on employee engagement and satisfaction said they worked with organizational leadership on their wellness program.
  • 57 percent experiencing a positive impact on health care costs involved organizational leadership in their programs.

"It's not only leadership support but, more specifically, leadership's communication of the program to staff that is critical for program success," said Julie Stich, CEBS, associate vice president of content at IFEBP.

Having organizational leaders express their support for wellness efforts was a strategy shared by workplaces with above-average participation rates for initiatives such as nutrition and fitness programs, health screenings and flu shots, Stich explained. Management's involvement in communicating about wellness was less common among workplaces with below-average participation rates.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Wellness Programs]

Financial Incentives Questioned

While more than half of employers are offering wellness incentives in 2018, less than one-third offered them last year, according to the 2018 Medical Plan Trends and Observations Report, released March 6. The report, which analyzes data on 907 employer health plans, was produced by DirectPath, an employee engagement and health care compliance firm, and CEB, now part of research firm Gartner.

The declining use of wellness incentives "may be attributed to employer concerns about the future legality of these plans, as well as continued questions regarding the value of incentives when it comes to controlling costs and improving health," said Kim Buckey, vice president of compliance communications at Birmingham, Ala.-based DirectPath.

Incentives ran the gamut from premium reductions and account contributions—made to health savings accounts, health reimbursement arrangements or flexible spending accounts—to gift cards or other in-kind rewards, the study showed. A number of employers provided a mix of incentives, awarding premium credits for activities that generate aggregated data on workers' health—such as screenings and health risk assessments—and providing account contributions for participating in other activities.

Around 70 percent of all employers that offer wellness programs reward participants for completing health risk assessments and screenings. Employers find this data useful in targeting their health plan coverage and wellness promotion efforts to address chronic health issues prominent among their workers, Buckey said.

Incentives are not always used well, however. More employees are looking at financial incentives as an entitlement, "which means it can be difficult for employers to take the incentives away," said Steve Nyce, a senior economist at consultancy Willis Towers Watson. "These rewards are not effective except when used in specific ways, such as for discrete tasks that offer an immediate payout," he noted.

Nyce led the research team for Willis Towers Watson's 2017/2018 Global Benefits Attitudes survey of 4,983 U.S. workers. While most employers believe their well-being programs have encouraged employees to live a healthier lifestyle, only 32 percent of employees agree, the study showed.

Rethinking Program Designs

Nyce suggested that employers rethink how their programs are designed, using incentives "to create longer-term behavior changes." To accomplish this, he said, "employers can leverage technology in their health and well-being programs" by having employees wear devices to monitor fitness activity or sleep and use technology platforms to track eating habits—and then employers tie financial incentives to an improvement in healthy behaviors.

And if employers can't show that their wellness programs are producing results? "Unless we see research providing concrete evidence of savings, we may see fewer employers offering incentive wellness programs—or a reduction in the monetary value of rewards provided," Buckey observed.

"Employers will be taking a hard look at whether the potential benefits of a wellness program outweigh the challenges of complying with applicable regulations," she added.

Why Wellness Programs Aren't Faring Well

Three reasons why employers are not seeing results from their wellness investment were suggested by Lorna Borenstein, CEO of Grokker, an employee wellness technology company.

Your culture doesn't support it.

Companies with successful programs genuinely care about creating a culture of well-being as a corporate value. Encourage leadership to champion and personally get involved in wellness programs, which in turn gives employees permission to take care of themselves.

You're not communicating enough.

Think of your employees as prospective clients; you'll need to convince them to take action on your wellness initiatives. Use a season calendar with exciting and changing initiatives throughout the year to connect with them frequently—the more channels and touchpoints, the better. On-demand access on any device and using video also promote engagement.

Your program isn't personalized.

Savvy HR leaders continually survey their workforce to discover what employees want and will be motivated to use, then address actual employee needs through guidance, empathy, understanding and personalization.


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