The Finer Details on Wellness

With companies searching for ways to minimize health care costs, wellness initiatives are becoming more prevalent. Attend an HR conference or trade show, and wellness is almost always on the agenda.

Given the emerging health care landscape, no one should be surprised. On average, employer health care costs are expected to increase 4.4 percent in 2014, according to Towers Watson & Co. This has led employers to take a greater interest in wellness programs to mitigate the cost.

Among other things, companies are introducing criteria that encourage healthier lifestyle choices — which also serve to foster camaraderie and collaboration. But encouraging healthier behavior isn’t enough. How a wellness program is framed is just as important as the substance of the program itself.

With employee engagement hovering around 30 percent nationwide, according to Gallup, employers are wise to take a closer look at ways in which they can better motivate employees. Recognizing discretionary effort through an achievement-based platform is one method.

Rewarding employees who make their health a priority makes for happier, more engaged employees. And happy and healthy employees are better for business.

Plenty of studies have shown that healthier employees take fewer sick days and stay with their employer longer. Studies have also shown that employees who are both physically healthy and emotionally engaged feel a stronger sense of purpose and pride in their work, promote and embody company culture, put the needs of their customers before their own and support changes that lead to improvement and innovation.

Investing in employee wellness also does not necessarily require a budget reconstruction. Compared to the cost surges employers are facing with the Affordable Care Act, companies are spending just $600 per employee so far this year to reward employees for meeting several types of initiatives, according to a study by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health. 

This includes:

  • Risk management — preventive disease screenings, annual physicals and flu shots.
  • Lifestyle management — meeting fitness requirements, smoking cessation or weight loss.
  • Challenges and contests — workplace competitions involving a number of program components, including tracking weight loss, eating habits or steps taken in a day.

To further incentivize wellness, some organizations have turned to recognition and rewards programs. Rewards often come in the form of cash or cash reimbursement programs — typically on gym memberships — gift cards or reduced co-payments for wellness visits. As those rewards accumulate, employees will often become further inspired to achieve loftier health-related goals.

But none of this will prove valuable unless wellness programs are viewed as part of a holistic way of thinking in which other elements of work and life are treated equally as important. This is where managers have the greatest opportunity.

Individually, we can only motivate ourselves to make the physical lifestyle changes that will improve our health and office productivity. But employees will certainly respond to a manager who genuinely cares for their well-being. In essence, it’s about finding out what makes employees tick — whether in the form of working style, career ambitions or personal hobbies — and taking interest in those aspects of their life.

The benefits for both employees and the organization are clear, but employees first need to be aware that a wellness program exists. Also, communicating that message needs to be in line with employees’ needs and wants.

The first question most people will ask is, “What’s in it for me?” Conveying that employee participation in a wellness program is potentially beneficial for the company’s bottom line isn’t going to generate the desired action. Making employee participation mandatory can also be an immediate culture-killer, as can issuing penalties and raising individual insurance costs for unhealthy employees.

Instead, the objective is acknowledging and rewarding employees. And with involvement from senior leaders and HR — and, perhaps most important, individual managers — integrating wellness into a company’s culture can have a strong influence on both employee health and companywide engagement.