Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wellness Programs Aren't Free and Cheap Ones Aren't Worth Anything

A recent study by Sibson Consulting found that while an average company spends about $80,000 per year on the pay, paid time off, and benefits for an average employee, only 0.16% of that, on average, is spent on wellness programs. For the mathematically challenged, or for those who would rather I do the math for them, 0.16% of $80,000 is $128 (the study reports that the average is $126 with the difference between my number and theirs due to rounding). That's not very much. What that tells me is that the average company wants to say that they have a wellness program, but that's it.

Sibson went on to conclude that companies that do invest in their wellness or healthy workplace programs do have a decrease in their employee health care costs that exceeds the cost of the program. They pointed out nine key employer actions that are characteristic of companies with the healthiest enterprises.

  • Have a program leader and wellness committee. If the program's success doesn't fall to an individual or a small group of individuals, no one will take ownership, no one will fight for it, and the company will see little return on its investment.
  • Align a healthy enterprise strategy with the overall business strategy. When employees see the connection, they are more likely to adopt these healthy behaviors.
  • Assess the current state. What do you have now and how well is it working?
  • Involve stakeholders. Get early buy-in from everyone from top management to groups of employees. While the study report does not say this, it occurs to me that having champions who support the program are an appropriate and useful way to engage employees.
  • Consider all the employer programs that contribute to a healthy workforce. This does not just include the standard things like smoking cessation and weight loss programs. Companies should consider how some of their other programs affect employee well being, especially mental health. For example, when a company cuts its 401(k) match, how might this change the stress levels of employees, how will this change the mental well being, and how, in turn, will this affect absenteeism, productivity, and turnover?
  • Focus on getting employees to embrace the program. Effective communications are important. Cheesy communications will turn employees off. Be sure that leaders live the message.
  • Create an effective workplace. I am not a fan of the word effective here, but I couldn't find a better one than the one that Sibson used. They point out that factors such as lack of trust and respect, as well as harassment, are seriously detrimental to workplace health. While it is difficult to build this into a wellness program, I think this is an excellent observation that negatively affects not just employee productivity, but employee health as well.
  • Consider dependents. While the typical American family may no longer have 1.7 kids, dependents typically still represent about one-half or more of total health care costs. Having some programs for dependents may well save an employer more than it spends. And, a program that is available to an entire family is likely to get higher participation from employees than one that they have to participate in without their family members.
  • Measure outcomes. No initiative in modern times is complete with measuring it. Successful measurement, though, isn't just focused on the total program, but is able to measure the successes and failures of various components. From this type of measurement comes the ability to make changes to the program to further increase its effectiveness.
Finally, while Sibson did not mention this, I am going to add two more elements to the list. Make it a friendly competition and make it fun. More than 30 years ago, I saw first hand how well this can work. I was working for a very large company that had lots of divisions. While wellness programs were non-existent back then, safety programs were all the rage. Each division had goals to improve its safety performance, and rewards were given to divisions that improved, as well as divisions that had the best safety performance. It made it fun, and it meant that employees didn't cut corners in doing their jobs, if it made it less safe for them or for their co-workers.

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