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Employers Take Wellness to a Higher Level

HR blows up the concept of health and takes a holistic approach to designing employee wellness programs.


​The HR leaders at Cisco Systems believe that employee wellness is about far more than offering the occasional onsite Weight Watchers meeting. Wellness goes beyond even providing the disease management programs that became popular in the early 2000s. Indeed, for the tech company, the very concept of wellness has evolved to include all aspects of employees’ well-being—from their finances to their social life. Cisco offers financial education (personal financial counseling is in the works), flexible work policies, five paid-time-off days a year for volunteer work, onsite mindfulness workshops and a generous paid-parental-leave program. And the business isn’t giving short shrift to its workers’ physical health, either: The 24,000-square-foot spa-like LifeConnections Center on its San Jose, Calif., campus offers onsite primary medical care, fitness centers, outdoor sports courts, hiking and biking paths, and a child care center.

Like Cisco, many companies today are dramatically expanding their vision of wellness. “The big thing in the HR world is that the industry is sort of rebranding, if you will, from wellness to well-being,” says Sarah Sardella, senior director for global benefits at Akamai Technologies, an Internet service provider based in Cambridge, Mass., with more than 7,100 employees globally and 3,250 in the U.S. “There was this initial focus on health and fitness—physical health. Now everyone is saying ‘What about financial wellness, emotional well-being and mental mindfulness?’ ” Sardella says.

These efforts may not always pay off quickly in cold, hard dollars saved on health care costs, but they can create happier, more productive and focused employees who are less stressed and less likely to miss work or leave the company, which may ultimately result in greater savings.

​“We want people to be at their best. That brings value to our employees, to their families and, of course, to Cisco,” says Karen Wiens, director of global benefits for the company’s 76,000 employees, including nearly 37,000 workers in the U.S.

HR's Expanding Mission

​Wellness programs have been a part of HR’s mission since the 1970s, coinciding with a general culture of fitness and emerging research on the cost of poor employee health on businesses’ bottom line. Today, these programs are popular and growing: More than 9 in 10 organizations surveyed by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) offer at least one kind of wellness benefit. More than 3 in 5 have wellness budgets, with more than half expecting those budgets to increase in the next two years, the IFEBP report found.

Moreover, from 2016 to 2017, nearly one-quarter of companies increased such offerings, while only 3 percent reduced them, according to the 2017 Employee Benefits survey report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Those additional benefits reflect the changing definition of workplace wellness—one that now “takes into perspective a more holistic view of health. It’s treating the employee as a whole person,” says Erin Seaverson, senior director of research and evaluation at StayWell, a Yardley, Pa.-based health education company.

​Benefits managers often divide well-being into “pillars” that represent different aspects of employee health. “There has been a migration from traditional wellness programs to programs that actually have more facets and hopefully address the needs of different employees at different places in their lives,” says Harvard Medical School professor Jeff Levin-Scherz, senior consultant of the health management practice of Willis Towers Watson in the greater Boston area.

From 2016 to 2017, nearly one-quarter of companies increased their wellness offerings.

The pillars can be thematic and goal-oriented, like those at Akamai, which seeks to provide programs that ensure workers are active, nourished, calm, healthy and balanced. Or they can be categorical. For example, the pillars might divide health into physical, social, financial, emotional and mental components.

Whatever the approach, the pillars are inter-related. Someone having trouble paying off a student loan, for example, might be losing sleep, then eating poorly and not exercising, adding up to a stressed, unfocused worker.

“There’s increasing evidence that there’s a connection between people’s perceived debt level and their perceived health—how they report their health and how productive they are,” Levin-Scherz says. “Thinking about well-being in [broader terms]—physical, financial, mental and social—really does make sense.”


HR managers are broadening the idea of wellness. What’s the best way to make sure the programs work? Experts offer their advice:

Ask people what they want. Listen before acting. Do employees want a company outing to improve social interaction? A nuts-and-bolts session on managing a retirement fund or using flextime to care for an ailing parent? 

​Individualize as much as possible. Financial wellness to a Millennial might mean figuring out how to handle a crushing college loan debt, while middle-aged workers are likely more focused on paying for their children’s college educations and preparing for retirement. Not everyone starts at the same level of physical fitness, either. A fitness program should accommodate those who run marathons and those for whom a 2-mile walk is an accomplishment.

​Decide how you will encourage employees to join in. A gift card or raffle prize motivates workers, HR experts say, because they largely enjoy being recognized. Companywide competitions (such as for daily step counts) are popular, too.

​Make it convenient. This means onsite fitness centers, but also primary care services to encourage health screenings for those with little time to visit an outside doctor. Providing extra paid time off for volunteer work makes it easier for people to find the time—and enhances their mental well-being, as well.

​Be a smart marketer. “I know if I run a class called ‘Stress Management 101,’ no one will come,” says Sarah Sardella, senior director for global benefits at Akamai Technologies. So she started a seminar called “The Art and Science of Sustaining Your Edge,” focusing on what’s happening scientifically in a person’s brain and body, she says, and how to avoid “tipping over the edge.”

​Use technology. Cisco’s options enable workers to schedule their doctors’ appointments electronically, send and receive medical records securely via e-mail, and access lab results online. Workers can watch Cisco’s own corporate TV feed on fitness center monitors and keep an eye on their kids in the onsite child care center through a live video feed. Companies also use apps and fitness trackers to help their employees stay physically fit or offer webinars on financial planning so employees can take the courses at their convenience.

Sound Finances

​Many employers have already embraced financial wellness. About half of organizations offer some kind of counseling or instruction about money, according to the SHRM and IFEBP surveys. Of those, about half plan to expand their programs.

Companies are responding to a critical employee need. Research shows that 56 percent of workers are not financially healthy, according to Rob Levy, managing director of the Chicago-based Center for Financial Services Innovation, which promotes financial wellness. The resulting strain is playing out in the workplace. “People who are more financially stressed take more days off work for health-related issues,” he says. Some research has shown that anxiety about money can cost organizations $7,000 per employee per year, he adds.

Managers who suspect that such pressures are interfering with their employees’ work are likely right: Roughly four out of 10 employees spend three or more working hours per week on personal finances, according to a workplace benefits report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. One out of five spend five hours or more.

​Financial assistance can be direct or indirect. Four percent of organizations help pay workers’ student loan debt, according to the SHRM survey. But more commonly, HR helps employees help themselves with seminars and webinars on managing money and even personal budget tips. Nearly half of companies offer financial counseling or advice, up from 36 percent the previous year.

At Akamai, employees can attend sessions on retirement planning, basic or advanced investing, estate planning, and college funding, Sardella says. She has also developed classes for people with specialized challenges, such as foreign nationals and individuals who rent rather than own their homes.

Similarly, Cisco offers employees a wide range of counseling options tailored to five “personas” based on demographic and life stages, Wiens says. That could mean guidance on starting a college fund for an infant, paying off student debt, buying a home, making a will or preparing for retirement. Workers are offered a personal money coach for 90 days, she says, and they have access to a financial wellness website the company created a couple of years ago.

Be cognizant of the various needs of employees at different life stages, advises Chris Ryan, vice president of strategic advisory services at ADP, a Roseland, N.J.-based HR management software and services company. There are now more single employees than married ones in the workforce, but unmarried workers don’t necessarily have fewer obligations, he says. Both groups may be tending to aging parents, for example, and need paid and unpaid time off as well as flexibility.

Poll employees to find out what they want and to develop a strategy to promote the benefit. That type of marketing effort can pay off. After one such promotional campaign at Cisco, 5,000 people signed up for an identity theft tutorial, which was a 30 percent increase from a previous session on the topic.

Emotional Well-Being

​Social health is part of wellness, too, whether it takes the form of promoting interaction at work or helping employees spend more time with others at home. That can mean offering flextime (57 percent of organizations offer it, according to the SHRM survey) or shift flexibility (on the rise, with 25 percent of organizations featuring it).

Volunteering through workplace initiatives can be a great way to foster positive personal bonds. Companies commonly sponsor charity drives and community volunteer projects, according to the IFEBP survey. One out of five offer paid time off for volunteering, according to the SHRM survey.

Emotional and mental health is a significant part of the picture, as well. Onsite meditation or mindfulness programs are benefits a small number of companies offer (7 percent), and some companies provide a quiet room for meditation or prayer (15 percent). At Cisco, employees can attend onsite mindfulness workshops and use related apps and games.

​Sleep is also key. Managers are cognizant of the trouble that can come from insufficient rest—including a variety of health and safety risks as well as reduced work quality, lower productivity and absenteeism. At LinkedIn, the wellness focus for 2017 is sleep quality; the company recently held its first “sleep fair” at its New York City office where employees learned sleep tips and tricks from top experts.

Strong Bodies

​Physical health initiatives are getting a makeover as well. Once heavily focused on cardiovascular health, today’s wellness programs are expanding to fit the needs of individual employees and to include more preventive and integrated options.

That can range from yoga classes and massages at IFEBP’s offices to an onsite farmer’s market, biometric screening services and personal health coaching at the National Council on Compensation Insurance, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based provider of workers’ compensation insurance information. There, employees can have their blood pressure checked, get dental care (which is also available to family members), or talk to a doctor and a health coach about an exercise and diet plan. At Cisco, employees can use the company’s health center and pay for services through their health insurance, Wiens says, but they do not have to be on the Cisco health plan to use the center.

Some companies, like Cisco, offer onsite clinics that provide primary care services, instead of merely treating workplace injuries and minor illnesses. While the trend is hardly widespread—SHRM’s study found that 8 percent of organizations have such a facility—the clinics give an extra nudge to many employees, especially young ones, who are pressed for time and might otherwise “blow off regular medical care,” says Mike Ferguson, chief operating officer of the Self-Insurance Institute of America, an association based in Simpsonville, S.C.

​One of the fastest-growing trends in workplace health is the standing desk, SHRM found, with 44 percent of organizations offering it, compared to 13 percent in 2013. Such equipment, which allows workers to stand while they work, aids both mental and metabolic health, say ergonomic specialists.

[SHRM members-only resource: How to Establish and Design a Wellness Program]

The Return

​So, is all that effort worth it? Yes, HR managers and economic experts say, but perhaps not in immediate monetary terms. Companies spend an average of $742 per employee per year on wellness, according to a recent UnitedHealthcare survey. Employers and employees say the programs improve workers’ health. But direct savings for employers are difficult to quantify.

Leaders of organizations with knowledge of their return on investment reported a return of $1-$4 for every dollar spent, according to the IFEBP survey.

Three-fourths of employers promote wellness to improve employee well-being; just 25 percent hope to reduce health care costs.

In recent years, though, companies say that cost savings are not really what’s motivating them to implement holistic health programs. Three-fourths of organizations promote wellness to improve overall employee satisfaction and well-being, with just 25 percent hoping to reduce health care costs, says Julie Stich, CEBS, associate vice president for content with IFEBP in Brookfield, Wis. That’s a big turnaround from the 1980s, when saving cash was the main driver.

​Instead, employers today use wellness programs to recruit and retain employees, as well as to improve their productivity. “There are only so many levers you can pull to slow your medical cost trend,” Sardella says, noting that medical inflation is higher than consumer inflation. “It’s a really [long-term] investment. You just can’t make people healthier overnight.” But, she asks, don’t wellness programs make employees more productive, focused and engaged at work? In other words, these efforts give employees a sense of total well-being.  

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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