Measuring the Success of Wellness Programs Still a Challenge

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Apr 6, 2012

More North American employers are starting wellness programs, and the majority of organizations with programs in place are looking to invest and expand, according to the Willis Health and Productivity Survey by Willis Human Capital Practice—North America, a unit of Willis Group Holdings, a global insurance broker.

According to the 2011 survey, 60 percent of respondents indicated that they have some type of wellness program, an increase of 13 percent from 2010. Additionally, employers are not scaling back—58 percent indicate they plan to expand their wellness initiatives with programs or resources.

The survey represents the findings from 1,598 employers representing a cross section of industries, locations and organizational sizes (44 percent of respondents had 1,000 or more employees).

Other findings include:

The most common types of wellness programs were physical activity programs (53 percent), tobacco cessation programs (49 percent) and weight management programs (45 percent).

Although 29 percent of survey respondents considered themselves to be a global organization, only 15 percent indicated that they had implemented a wellness program for their global employees.

43 percent of employers said the leading barrier to measuring success was difficulty in determining the influence of wellness compared with other factors impacting health care costs. Insufficient data and not enough staffing and time remain common barriers to measuring success.

Wellness Incorporates Work/Life Balance

The survey asked employers about work/life programs. Findings revealed that 51 percent reported promoting work/life balance within their worksite wellness program. After employee assistance programs (EAPs), flexible start and end times were the most common work/life options, reported by 81 percent of respondents. The survey found helping employees achieve work/life balance was a significant concern of 18 percent of respondents and somewhat of a concern by 54 percent.

“Wellness programs continue to evolve, and it is encouraging to see more organizations initiate programs despite economic pressures and continuing challenges in accurately measuring outcomes and results,” said Jennifer C. Price, senior health outcomes consultant at Willis Human Capital Practice.

“Additionally it is exciting to see more employers offering work/life balance programs as a part of their broader wellness efforts. Employers seem to realize that employees need resources to find the proper balance between the demands of work and personal life.”

Employers Fail to Measure Wellness ROI

A separate survey reveals that wellness programs are one of the best ways for employers to promote a healthy workforce and contain health care expenses, but employers are failing to measure these programs’ return on investment (ROI) fully.

According to the HR/Benefits Survey on Wellness by ADP, 79 percent of large and 44 percent of mid-sized U.S. companies offer wellness programs, but over 60 percent of these companies do not measure their ROI. Nevertheless, most mid-sized and large companies report that their wellness programs met or exceeded their senior executives’ expectations in regards to reducing overall health care costs, the survey found.

“Wellness programs are employers’ ‘next best hope’ for containing health care expenses,” said Tim Clifford, president of benefits services for national accounts at ADP Inc., a provider of human resource management, payroll and benefits administration services. “These programs can also increase productivity without the negative impact on employee morale of layoffs or cutting plan options–yet few companies are measuring their return on investment from wellness initiatives.”

Among findings from the ADP survey:

Among companies that offer wellness programs,one-quarter of mid-sized companies and slightly more than one-fifth of large companies measure the programs' ROI.

With regards to reducing overall health care costs, most companies (53 percent of mid-sized and 65 percent large) report that their wellness programs met or exceeded expectations.

The majority of companies provide voluntary or incentive-based wellness programs, but 15 percent of mid-sized companies and 12 percent of large companies make participation in these programs mandatory.

Reasons that employers cite for offering wellness programs vary.A majority (81 percent mid-sized, 78 percent large) say they are most interested in improving employee health, closely followed by controlling health care costs. A third or more are interested in attracting and retaining employees and maintaining or increasing benefits offerings.

Participation in wellness programsaveraged 51 percent of employees in mid-sized companies and 39 percent of employees in large companies.

Five wellness program components or interventions are offered, on average, at mid-sized companies and six at large ones.

The ADP Research Institute conducted the ADP survey during the fourth quarter of 2011 among HR decision-makers from U.S. companies ranging from 50 to over 1,000 employees.

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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