- Marcos Iglesias, Chief Medical Officer, Senior Vice President, Broadspire;
- Monica Manske Sr. Manager of Workers’ Compensation and Employee Safety, Rochester Regional Health.
Over the past few years we have heard it claimed that wellness programs can generate a 3 – 1 return on investment for employers. But many organizations that implement them become frustrated by the lack of significant – if any – benefits and may feel their money has been wasted.
Wellness programs are not a panacea. Some elements of typical wellness programs are questionable or even harmful, from a medical standpoint. Faced with high healthcare and workers’ compensation costs, organizations are seeking ways to help their employees and improve their bottom lines. Experts say with proper design, effort, time, and realistic expectations, employers can see positive impacts from wellness programs.
The overall health of the average America is not ideal; “deplorable,” is how some would describe it. Chronic health conditions, which comprise 7 of the top 10 causes of death, are common, deadly and disabling – yet preventable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says if we eliminated poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyles, and use of tobacco products, we could eliminate 80 percent of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and 40 percent of all cancers. Improving the health and wellbeing of the employee population is far beyond the abilities of any single employer and will require massive changes in society.
But employers can take steps to help their employees make incremental improvements in their overall health and wellbeing. More than half of small employers and the vast majority of large employers are trying.
The problem comes when companies that undertake these efforts see no gain. One year into the program, it’s not unusual for companies to see no improvement in health outcomes or productivity and no difference in the number of sick days employees take.
One recent study showed the only difference after 12 months was that employees who were included in the program were overall happier than others. There were no measurable health changes, however. Another recent well-publicized study of employees at BJ’s Wholesale Warehouse found no reductions in healthcare costs and no difference in clinical measures after 18 months.
Dr. Marcos Iglesias, the chief medical officer for Broadspire, said some wellness programs include recommendations that don’t follow evidence-based medical guidelines. One he cited from the Midwest encouraged all employees to undergo a colonoscopy, which is not medically recommended for everyone, is expensive and unpleasant. Another suggested self-breast exams and testicular exams, which he said are also not advised or recommended for everyone. Iglesias said the frequency of preventive screenings in most wellness programs on the market do not follow medical evidence, and in some cases may do more harm than good.
Weight management programs, while well-intentioned, frequently advocate crash-dieting principles. Also, they may cause emotional harm by constantly reinforcing the message that the employee needs to lose weight or stop smoking.
The penalties for non-participation in the program or failing to meet certain clinical measures may be seen as coercive or punitive, especially for workers who cannot participate – the disabled and single parents, for example. According to Iglesias, employees who do not participate in wellness programs forfeit an average $670 per year.
How to Impact Employee Health
All this begs the question, what can employers do to impact the health and wellbeing of their employees?
The first step is to understand what a wellness program is and what elements to include, based on the organization. There are myriad definitions of what actually constitutes a ‘wellness program.’ Generally, it is a benefit to employees that focuses on lifestyle and prevention to help employees improve their health and/or stay healthy. It may include a variety of elements such as fitness activities, smoking cessation and weight loss programs, health assessments, disease management, nutritional guidance, and lunch and learn educational sessions, for example.
No two wellness programs are necessarily alike and the most effective ones evolve with changes in the organization. The webinar outlined a series of ‘musts’ in designing or improving wellness programs that can make a difference for organizations.
- Seek input from inside and outside the organization.
- Unless an organization is comprised of wellness experts, it can benefit from consultants who are brought in to provide input.
- A wellness program should be a benefit to all employees – not just those who are already-fit and healthy. Their needs and desires may be different. Creating a cross-functional team comprised of various employees can serve as a guide to the elements that should be included. Surveys can also be used to identify their needs and satisfaction levels, once the program has been implemented.
- Clearly define the goals of the program.
- Explore and determine the amount needed to be budgeted and human resource commitment.
- Find the right space.
- If onsite fitness will be included, an area needs to be designated.
- Additionally, there should be an area for educational services and preventive programs. It should be welcoming and attractive to employees and their families.
- Show compassion, care, and foresight for employees in the design and approach of the program. Consider the specific needs of all employees, including those with outside obligations that may prevent them from participating in after-hours programs.
- Continuously evaluate the program. Again, seek engagement of a cross-section of employees to determine how effective the program is.
- Make it a carrot, not a stick. Center the program on employees. Offer a variety of activities that meet their needs. That may involve expanded hours for certain programs, or allowing workers to use work hours to participate.
- Have realistic expectations. Acknowledge that it may not be able to move the needle toward optimal health and wellbeing for all employees, but that some improvement is a benefit to workers and the organization and that it will take time.
For existing programs that appear to be ineffective,
- Conduct a SWOT analysis. Collaborate with a cross-sectional team of employees to determine what is and is not working, and if any new needs have evolved; what, if any external forces are impacting the program.
- Identify what to measure. Looking to workers’ compensation costs to determine the program’s effectiveness may not make sense because of its long tail.
- Determine if there is the appropriate amount of HR support for the program, since these are often add-ons and, therefore, not administered by a designated person.
The idea of a wellness program should not be to create wellness superstars but to impact workers’ overall health. Organizations that carefully consider the needs and desires of their workforces spend time properly developing the program, and continuously evaluate and tweak it may see some benefits to their workers and bottom lines.
Author Michael Stack, CEO Amaxx LLC. He is an expert in workers’ compensation cost containment systems and helps employers reduce their workers’ comp costs by 20% to 50%. He works as a consultant to large and mid-market clients, is a co-author of Your Ultimate Guide To Mastering Workers Comp Costs, a comprehensive step-by-step manual of cost containment strategies based on hands-on field experience, and is founder & lead trainer of Amaxx Workers’ Comp Training Center.
Workers’ Comp Roundup Blog: http://blog.reduceyourworkerscomp.com/
Dr. Marcos Iglesias is senior vice president and chief medical officer of Crawford & Company’s global TPA, Broadspire. He has more than 25 years of experience in workers compensation, disability evaluation and treatment, and insurance leadership. In addition to being a physician, executive, national speaker and author, Iglesias is known for his compassion for patients, progressive and inspirational leadership, and integrated approach to injured worker care. Iglesias has a special interest in the prevention and mitigation of delayed recovery and disability. He is driven to help ill and injured workers live active, productive and fulfilling lives, which has led him to develop innovative, comprehensive disability management solutions that focus on returning workers to pre-injury function.
Monica Manske, Sr. Manager of Workers’ Compensation & Employee Safety; Rochester Regional Health. Rochester Regional Health is the leading provider of comprehensive care for Western New York and the Finger Lakes region. From harnessing research and technology, to helping patients redefine the odds—we are leading the evolution of healthcare. It’s a commitment to health that exceeds expectations, reaching beyond the present into what’s next. Formed in 2014 with the joining of Rochester General and Unity Health systems, now, as one organization, Rochester Regional Health brings to its mission a broad spectrum of resources, an ability to advocate for better care, a commitment to innovation and an abiding dedication to caring for the community.
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