Wellness’ Influence on Engagement Remains Elusive

Sprint has been restructuring its wellness program to make it more holistic and to increase employee participation. In 2011, the company created its National Fitness Challenge, in which employees participate in competitions for steps walked, minutes exercised and weight lost, and they use Sprint’s internal social media platform to record progress.

Nearly half of the employees signed up, incentivized by raffles and small-dollar rewards, Case said. By the end of the 12-week program, more than 700 had walked at least 1 million steps.

But Sprint doesn’t directly measure the effect of its wellness program on engagement and productivity.

Instead, Case touted the team environment the program created as well as the investment return it generated in areas like participation and health care. In 2013, Sprint said it realized a 13 percent increase in return on its wellness program investment from 2012, as reflected through increased participation and the validated health care services by those participants compared to the cost of the program.

Moving forward, Case said Sprint is considering adding questions in its next employee engagement survey about how employees feel about the program and its influence on employees’ feelings about work.
Other companies aim to use more sophisticated measurements.

Hog Slat Inc., a livestock and poultry producer in Newton Grove, N.C., has an outcome-based wellness program based in part on employees’ biometrics — lab results on things like blood pressure, lipid profiles and body mass index.

Denise Holland, the company’s former director of employee health care who now runs the program through her own consulting firm, Employee Wellness Consulting, said she works with vendors who bring biometric screeners on site. The vendor then provides employers with an aggregate report of the health status of their employee population. The screenings are conducted each year to determine whether there are aggregate biometric improvements.

“Employees are willing to share this when they know that they will save money on their health insurance premium or receive some other incentive that they value,” Holland said. The company looks at reduced absenteeism and improved workers’ compensation costs as measures of productivity.

Holland said the health-risk assessments she administers ask participants to not only list the number of days they missed due to sickness but also the number of days they came to work sick but were not “at their full potential.”

“If you’re at work and all you can think about is that you hurt, or you’re dizzy from high blood pressure, or your vision is cloudy because of uncontrolled diabetes, that impacts how engaged you are at work,” she said.

Insurer Prudential Financial Inc. also prefers indirect indicators to measure the effect of its wellness program on employee engagement and productivity. Andrew Crighton, the company’s vice president and chief medical officer, said on its health-risk assessment Prudential asks employees to rate on a scale of one to five whether the organization supports them in maintaining and improving their health. It also asks them to rate the level of supervisor support they receive.

“We have found that health and work-life programs are associated with overall satisfaction with the firm, how they feel valued as an employee and whether they would recommend Prudential as an employer,” Crighton said.

Still, Crighton cautioned against companies putting too much effort into trying to collect data and measure wellness’ direct influence on things like engagement and productivity.

“There are so many factors that relate to someone’s performance that we don’t know the direct relationship and how much participation in wellness programs contributes to that,” he said. “Maybe they can do pilot studies and that would be good enough, but to try to get hard data might be cost-prohibitive.”

Maureen Corcoran, Prudential’s vice president of health, life and inclusion, said employers should be less concerned with measuring the cost benefit of wellness as it pertains to engagement and productivity and more concerned with helping employees lead healthier lives. “No doctor would not serve a patient if all they cared was how much it would cost them to treat them,” Corcoran said.

Moving van company Atlas World Group Inc. also doesn’t try for hard metrics correlating wellness participation with productivity. Nancy Priebe, the company’s vice president of human resources, said they feel comfortable with anecdotal evidence that employees are more productive, because they don’t need to take additional time off to travel offsite.

Atlas’ headquarters has an on-site fitness center and a walking and running track for employees and their families to use for free. Atlas also opened an on-site medical clinic in 2012, which offers primary and urgent care, generic medications and lab services.

“While it is difficult to measure actual cost savings from these programs, we have consistent feedback from employees who participate in walking challenges [that] they feel better, lose weight and are able to reduce or eliminate medications,” Priebe said.

But as the tools and sentiment about wellness in corporate America continue to evolve, more companies are poised to take a sophisticated look into programs’ direct effect on employee productivity and engagement.

“As these things get easier to measure, more will do it — and they will have to, as more companies will be forced to put more effort into wellness,” Priebe said. 

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based freelance journalist. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.