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Are Wellness Programs Wasted on the Well?

Wellness programs are increasingly common these days in organizations large and small. But some believe that participants tend to be those who were already well, or planning to get there. Is there evidence to suggest that employees who really need to avail themselves of these offerings are doing so? What best practices are organizations using to ensure that their investments in wellness programs are paying off?

Numbers Matter

Intuitively, and based on broad coverage of the general value of wellness programs for employees, it’s logical to think that the programs provide benefit. When working with the C-suite, though, intuition isn’t enough. HR leaders need to be able to link real results—quantified through actual costs savings—back to companies’ wellness initiatives.

For example, according to Fitbit, in 2014 Dayton Regional Transit Authority’s employees spent 8 hours a day sitting behind a wheel, had company-wide health problems and a yearly healthcare spend of $7+ million. They implemented Fitbit into their corporate wellness program and began offering onsite fitness classes. As a result, the company’s employees dropped an average of 17 glucose and 12 LDL cholesterol points and saved $2.3 million healthcare costs after one year.

Making the Connection

Making this type of cause and effective connection between wellness initiatives and some real, and relevant, bottom line impact helps to provide evidence in support of the time, effort and investment that these programs may entail. Yes, there are likely to be some general benefits that companies receive through their employee wellness efforts, including employee satisfaction, decreases in absenteeism, etc., but these soft benefits need to be augmented through quantifiable data.

The best time to think about making these types of bottom line connections, is before an initiative is implemented. Specific outcome measures should be identified at the beginning of any wellness program. In what ways do you believe the effort will generate results? What metrics will you monitor?

In larger organizations pilots can be set up to demonstrate the difference in employee populations that were, and were not, included in an initiative. For instance, suppose you were to provide employees with wearable devices of some type to monitor the number of steps they walk each day and challenge them to walk 10,000 steps a day for some period of time. You might decide that your outcome measures would be impact on absenteeism during the initiative and impact on specific types of healthcare claims over some period of time. You might do this pilot in one area of your organization and change nothing in other areas, then do a pre/post comparison of the data to determine if any positive change occurred.

Building Alliances

While this type of data certainly can be tracked, the process of tracking can challenge internal resources particularly in smaller organizations. In these cases, HR leaders may wish to consider partnerships with other companies or groups. In Hawaii, for instance, the Hawai’I Health at Work Alliance (HH@WA), a statewide initiative has measured attitudes toward worksite wellness programs and assessed the impact of the programs were having. According to this group’s research 69 percent of participant organizations saw an increase in employee productivity, 68 percent saw an increase in employee satisfaction and 61 percent reported an increase in company revenue that they tied back to their wellness programs. It is also of interest to note that only 38 percent of the companies surveyed had wellness programs in place.

Can these programs work? Yes. But HR leaders are well advised to ensure that they are implementing programs for reasons tied to company benefit and that they are measuring, monitoring and reporting on the benefits they achieve.

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