Many companies offer programs to help employees improve their health and avoid risky behaviors. The rationale is that such efforts will save companies money over the long term by attracting and retaining top talent, and boosting productivity and morale, while decreasing the overall cost of health care. But are employers really seeing a return on their investment? Studies show mixed results, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on well-being programs entirely. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1 found that employers with comprehensive wellness initiatives and appropriate health plans see an ROI of $3-$6 for every dollar invested.
So why do some initiatives succeed while others fail? Based on national research and insights from our work with companies of all sizes, Aetna has identified four common characteristics of highly effective well-being programs. The next time your company is choosing a plan, arm yourself with these questions to evaluate which one will deliver on its promises.
Employee-driven programs are opt-in, ongoing and confidential, and tend to offer rewards for progress. Company-driven programs tend to be mandatory and infrequent, and impose penalties instead of incentives. Employees are much more likely to join programs where they see direct benefit than those driven by their employer’s objectives. Will program participants enjoy weight loss, stress relief or the need for fewer medications? Even less concrete benefits like friendship, hope and greater happiness can push program adoption, if communicated properly.
Biometric screening is a good example of a company-driven program. Biometrics can be a valuable tool for risk assessment, making them popular with employers. But the immediate benefit to employees isn’t clear, which may be why such screenings don’t translate to increased employee engagement or satisfaction, regardless of the incentive. In fact, surveys show that employees may fear negative results, the medical regimens they can trigger, and the financial penalties that some companies impose.
Wearable technology, on the other hand, can be leveraged to provide deeply personal wellness programs. The technology meets employees wherever they are and taps into many of the psychological techniques that keep us reaching for our phones, like gamification and social competition. Even more exciting, users of the Attain by Aetna app receive highly personalized health recommendations based on their Apple Watch activity and health history. “You’re not being told to take 10,000 steps a day, regardless of whether you like steps at all or whether 10,000 is the right number for you,” says Ben Wanamaker, who led the team that developed the app.
Employees earn rewards by making progress on their health goals and by taking simple actions like getting a flu shot or refilling a prescription — actions that also lower employer costs and boost healthy outcomes.
Effective employee-centered wellness programs require a deep understanding of a company’s workforce — both the overall population and the challenges facing specific groups. This allows companies to allocate resources where they can have the greatest impact.
A recent JAMA editorial,2 which accompanied a large-scale study of the efficacy of workplace wellness programs, noted that focusing on particular employee segments may be necessary to generate significant effects over the short-term. This can mean targeting the 15% of employees who have chronic conditions and consume 30% of spend, or the 5% of seriously ill employees who consume 50% of spend. For example, gym benefits tend to be utilized by young, healthy workers, but older workers with diabetes or chronic back pain have different needs. For that segment, a fitness benefit may also need to provide access to classes via video-on-demand or personalized health coaching by phone.
Of course, a comprehensive program should still engage 100% of employees to be more active and eat well. But to be highly effective, your program should also target the employee segments that account for a large percentage of company costs. Wellness programs that employ wearables can do just that – they motivate all employees by personalizing the health prompts and making the process fun.
Successful plans recognize that physical health is just one aspect of wellness. Emotional, social, occupational, financial and spiritual goals also contribute to overall well-being — and are often interconnected. A comprehensive worksite health promotion program will address a broad range of objectives, from smoking cessation and environmental safety to social isolation and stress.
Stress management in particular has become a key concern. In fact, a 2018 survey by the nonprofit International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans3 (IFEBP) found that stress-management counseling improved the likelihood that a program would have positive results. Drilling down into sources of stress, SHRM4 finds that many employees (71%) reveal personal finance issues as a top driver. And a MetLife report5 noted that more than half of employers (58%) have seen financial problems contribute to employee absenteeism. Indeed, more and more companies are recognizing financial wellness as a key element of a comprehensive program.
For a checklist of recommended components of workplace health promotion efforts, employers can refer to Healthy People 2020,6 a national initiative to improve the health of all Americans. Its list of Leading Health Indicators allows program leaders to measure company outcomes against national benchmarks.7
Effective wellness programs are not one-and-done. They’re dynamic and flexible, incorporating newer technologies that encourage participation on employees’ terms. Some health insurance companies, like Aetna, partner with companies on their wellness programs and work with company leaders to evolve the programs to meet changing needs.
Effective programs tend to capture feedback on an ongoing basis, looking at health data, usage trends and employee focus groups to understand what’s working and what needs to change. Regular enhancements should be baked in, keeping programs fresh, focused and fun for employees. Peerfit, an Aetna partner, connects employees to networks of wellness studios, from CrossFit and kickboxing to yoga and barre, catering to an individual hunger for variety while serving the diverse interests of employee populations.
Digital tools can make it easier to shift strategies based on employee needs. For high-achieving users, the Attain by Aetna app steps up the difficulty over time to keep it challenging. If employees hit a rough patch or are struggling to continuously meet goals, the app will adjust down to get them back to a place where they’re winning again.
Successful wellness programs put employees first, understand the unique needs of each workforce, and focus on the whole person. These programs are flexible, adapting to changing employee needs and interests. The payoff is greater employee engagement, better health and lower costs for employers and employees.
3 https://www.ifebp.org; membership required
Authored by The Enterprise Content Marketing Team and Pamela Rekow
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