By JOSHUA CLIFTON, a Chicago-based writer who covers workers' comp and disability issues
The popularity of corporate wellness programs has surged in recent years as employers search for new ways to curb rising healthcare costs. While many of these initiatives have been successful in lowering employee obesity levels and improving the overall health of the workplace, the current economic recession is forcing many companies to make tough choices when it comes to the funding of such programs.
LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health and director of the Institute on Innovation in Workforce Well-Being, said research has shown that employers still firmly believe in the goals of health and wellness programs, but they are also conscious of the ailing economy and its impact on corporate spending.
"They remain committed, but they are looking for ways to make sure their investment is sustainable," she said. "The bar is being set higher, and they want to make sure they are acting economically responsible and only choosing the value propositions."
A survey by the NBGH in conjunction with Towers Watson found that a growing number of employers are tightening their requirements for workers to receive financial incentives connected with wellness programs. Researchers found that, while more than half (53 percent) of large employers offer financial incentives to employees who enroll in health engagement activities (such as weigh management or smoking cessation programs), participation alone is no longer enough to earn an incentive. More than one-third of employers (37 percent) now only reward those workers who meet the company's requirements for completion of a health engagement activity, and many (29 percent) only reward employees who participate in multiple activities.
Ted Nussbaum, senior consultant with Towers Watson, said that companies are growing frustrated by their employees' low use of expensive health improvement programs.
"As employers continue to empower workers to be more health focused, they are beginning to target and reward those workers who demonstrate a real commitment to making positive lifestyle changes," he said.
ENGAGEMENT AND EVALUATION
Heinen said that the options for corporate wellness programs are limitless, with companies no longer only providing on-site gyms but also providing nutritionists, discounts for fitness programs in the community and a wide range of incentive programs for participating in healthy activities.
"There has been an explosion in the wellness field, and there are so many programs that companies are able to layer on," she said. "Companies now have to look where they are getting participation. If you are offering a program option and no one is going, there are going to be no positive outcomes. That's why today you hear everyone talking about engagement."
With skyrocketing healthcare costs, employers are realizing that simply cutting back in light of the economy isn't the answer. Heinen said that employee satisfaction surveys and health assessment questionnaires are a solid way of determining where you are getting the biggest bang for your wellness bucks. In addition, companies, she said, should be looking for inexpensive program options that can be implemented without breaking the bank.
"I think, first and foremost, employers need to explore and exploit every low-cost and no-cost idea," she said. "Let's not forget what we can do without a significant financial investment."
Some of these options, according to the NBGH, include providing walking maps to locations around the community; offering flexible work schedules to facilitate physical activity, stress reduction and self-care; implementing screen savers that encourage employees to take time out each day for one small health improvement task; and distributing apples with wellness brand stickers to employees as they enter the building.
Helen Darling, president of the NBGH, said that, although employers face a challenging road ahead, in the end, those companies that are "most effective at empowering their workers to be engaged consumers of care will find greater success at keeping costs low" and will likely be rewarded with a healthier, more productive workforce.
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
August 23, 2010
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