Wellness Program value Is Financially Misunderstood

By Stephen Miller Nov 16, 2010

As the benefits from a properly executed wellness initiative become more universally understood, employers are learning that the way a program is launched and the manner in which it is supported are just as important as the number of free gym memberships handed out and the types of snacks in the company vending machine. To that end, a new white paper from United Benefit Advisors (UBA), an alliance of more than 140 independent benefit advisory firms, explores steps that employers can take to improve the health of their employees and generate a positive return on investment that can lead to lower health benefit costs.

“Employers understand the importance of helping employees ward off disease and prevent illness through preventative care, screenings and healthier lifestyles. This is an investment in their most important asset—their employees,” said Deenie Robertson, an executive for health and lifestyle management with The Wilson Agency, a UBA member in Anchorage, Alaska. “However, due to the economy and uncertainty behind health care reform, many clients seem to be holding back on spending money on wellness. But when clients experience a substantial increase in premiums, they recognize that they need to do something. When they feel they cannot continue to increase premiums and need to consider new ways to keep costs down, they turn to wellness,” she said.

For many employers, kick-starting a full-blown wellness program can be overwhelming. The secret, several UBA member firms said, is just like healthy eating: Don't bite off more than you can chew. Starting small and implementing a few features in the beginning can allow a company and participants to focus on achievable goals. As the company adopts more programs, its culture accepts more buy-in to wellness, and participation increases, which can translate into real savings.

A Staged Approach

Steps to success, according to UBA members, include:

Customize the program.One size does not fit all. Evaluate your needs and goals, and build the program around them.

Go in stages.If the budget is limited, start with the short-term programs available through carriers. Mid term, begin to adopt programs that increase participation while improving morale. Long term, prepare the organization to take advantage of health care reform initiatives and develop a program that continues to add activities and to keep people engaged.

Start sooner rather than later. The earlier the program is launched, even with limited resources or budget, the quicker the organization will see results.

Wellness Program Stages

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4


Maximize carrier wellness benefits.

Employee engagement programming.

Traditional claims programming.

High-impact programming.


Use the benefits already included in your carrier’s benefit plans.

Seek to get employees involved by introducing activities that get them thinking about wellness.

Use claims experience to determine primary cost drivers. Program focuses on individual and group activities.

Individual results-driven program. Focus on individual over group activities.

Sample Activities

Health risk assessments, screenings, educational classes, etc.

Activity challenges, on-site weight-loss programs, lunch-and-learns, team competitions.

Greater focus on education and targeted screenings, monthly communication, on-site fitness classes.

Include one-on-one coaching and online classes.

Source: United Benefit Advisors.

Determine Return on value

No matter the program, employers eventually expect to see a return on investment (ROI), and wellness initiatives are no exception. However, many employers overlook the return on value (ROV) that is inherent during the early stages of a program that might not show up on the bottom line, experts say. Ultimately, the question of value must be determined by the company based on its objectives.

Soft savings—such as reduced absenteeism and presenteeism and increased morale—are among the most immediate examples of ROV. Hard savings, such as reduced premiums and overall health plan costs, constitute long-term ROI.

Karen Kelly, a registered nurse and director of health and wellness with Borislow Insurance of Methuen, Mass., suggests that employers acknowledge ROV early and evaluate their progress after completing a new program or reaching another milestone. Also, “it doesn't hurt to make a little noise to the bosses when the program succeeds,” Kelly noted. “Celebrate all successes no matter how small, like an employee losing weight, or quitting smoking. Your co-workers and leadership will respond with, ‘Yes, this is really working,’ ” Kelly said.

Stephen Miller is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

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