When Wellness Programs Work

wellness programs

Everyone loves a good success story about wellness programs. Even in the field of employee wellness, where leaps and bounds are made every day in progress and efficacy, it can be easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal. In this case, employers are striving for reduced health care costs for both the company and the employees, as well as an increase in workplace productivity, morale, and overall physical, mental, and financial wellbeing.

On a small scale, daily and weekly battles are being fought to create and implement successful health initiatives. A common mistake made by employers who are new to the world of employee wellness is failure to commit. After a failed wellness challenge or low turnout for a biometric screening, many employers resign themselves to the idea that their wellness program simply isn’t working. They lose sight of the larger picture: despite any one given victory or defeat, the war is not lost. Setbacks are inevitable and the occasional failure is unavoidable. However, wellness programs have proven themselves time and time again to be a useful, if not vital, tool for achieving better employee health and reduced healthcare costs.

Although successful wellness programs may differ on components and activities, they share key characteristics. Employers must offer programs that are practical and easily accessed by employees, have support from senior leadership, create positive cultural change, and reward employees for participating year after year. Employers who utilize and implement health initiatives appropriately realize returns on their investment in as few as two years. Recent studies report a decrease in medical costs of approximately $3.27 for every dollar an employer spends on a wellness program, suggesting a strong correlation between the two. One explanation is that healthier companies are more likely to invest in wellness programs simply due to their preexisting interest in, or predisposition for, healthy behavior. While this may certainly be true in some case studies, more comprehensive studies have shown that this trend can be generalized to most large companies and that it is indeed causational.

Similarly, employers who have committed to wellness programs are seeing significant reductions in absenteeism (as high as a twenty-eight percent reduction) and employee burnout. Companies who have received the American Psychological Association’s ‘Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award’ have impressively low rates of turnover compared to the national average (six percent versus thirty-eight percent, respectively).

These trends hold true for nearly every aspect of employee wellness, even expanding outside of physical and mental health. From understanding and taking advantage of their healthcare benefits to job satisfaction and financial security, continuing evidence suggests that workplace wellness programming is key to employees’ satisfaction with their jobs and confidence in their employers. With trillions being spent on healthcare annually and millions of workdays being lost to largely preventable conditions, these substantial results are precisely what is needed to help remedy the employee health crisis.

One struggle for employers is measuring the success of their program. Without concrete evidence of benefits, it is difficult to justify the effort and money being poured into a wellness initiative. Indeed, many employers are finding this to be a daunting task, with as few as thirty-two percent reporting that they were able to track ROI after implementing a program. In the absence of clear evidence of success, wellness programs can seem ambiguous and ineffective and quickly lose traction. The key to demonstrating success is collecting data.

Health risk assessments help remedy this issue; with regular assessments, an employer can sufficiently track the effectiveness of both specific health initiatives and the general program itself. In addition to determining the effect of programs on employee health, an employer also requires confirmation that healthcare costs are indeed being reduced. Tracking ROI and cost savings are imperative aspects of maintaining a successful wellness program. Gaining access to medical and pharmaceutical claims information and tracking year over year changes is essential to understanding cost savings. And don’t forget to analyze absenteeism, as well as its lesser-emphasized counterpart, presenteeism – that is, an employee’s productivity when they are well compared to when they are stressed or sick.

The health and financial benefits of wellness programs are endless. Employees with access to these programs are seeing lower cholesterol and blood pressure, cessation of smoking, increased physical activity, better sleep patterns, less work-related stress, weight loss, and better emotional and financial wellbeing. Employers are reaping the rewards of better employee health: increased productivity, better worker morale and camaraderie, and healthcare savings. Provided they are well-designed and shrewdly implemented, we are seeing continuous evidence that wellness programs are truly a win-win solution to the healthcare woes of the workplace.