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Sally Jeffcoat: Well-chosen wellness plans can pay off for businesses

Sally Jeffcoat
Sally Jeffcoat

Unhealthy employees cost businesses money — lost productivity, more sick leave, higher health care costs. So it makes sense for an organization to do whatever it can to keep workers healthy.

Workplace wellness programs are one option. Their goal is to keep employees healthy up front, rather than just paying for treatment after workers become ill. Employees don’t want to be sick, and you don’t want to pay for expensive medical treatment if it can be prevented.

But do wellness programs work? Are the companies that invest in wellness programs seeing a return? The answer is a qualified yes. There are certainly effective comprehensive programs that pay for themselves. Then again, there are other programs where the return is not worth the investment.

What are the characteristics of a successful program or, conversely, characteristics of the ones that don’t work? The most important characteristics are leadership, buy-in, and commitment from the top levels of the organization. But this means more than just top-down directives.

Commitment means accepting that a continuous, long-term approach is critical. Successful programs are ongoing, a companywide priority, keep employees engaged and provide incentives for long-term behavioral change.

At a recent Healthcare Roundtable sponsored by Saint Alphonsus, the chief medical officer for national grocery chain Safeway Inc. provided a striking example. Kent Bradley, M.D., described Safeway’s dilemma with its 180,000 employees: The company provided no incentive for them to get healthier, and health care costs were growing at a rate of two to three times that of sales. There were no incentives for employees to engage in healthy behavior, and their out-of-pocket health care costs didn’t change with their wellness status.

Bradley and the company decided to take a stick and carrot approach, finding ways to reward employees financially who improved their wellness over time. The idea was that employees would participate in a program because being healthy is a good idea, but they would really engage if it saved them money in terms of lower personal costs for health care.

It worked. Safeway reduced its annual health care cost growth companywide from 8 percent in 2005 to 2 percent in 2012 for a total cumulative savings of $410 million.

More organizations are seeing both the monetary and the moral value of helping employees help themselves toward good health. Saint Alphonsus works with many organizations with this goal. As a first step, we recommend a health risk assessment to pinpoint areas of risk through key indicators such as weight, cardiac risk and body mass index.

A Health Risk Assessment Study provides a clear picture of the health of a company’s employee base. The results can be eye-opening — occasionally shocking — to business owners. But they provide a realistic starting point, as well as being essential in measuring results during periodic, ongoing follow-up sessions. Far from being a burden, our experience is that employees appreciate the attention and focus on their wellness.

Admittedly, a comprehensive review can lead to increased costs initially, as employees discover problems they need to address. But experience shows that as early as the second year, costs will realign. Within a few years, with an engaged workforce, most companies see significant health care cost savings.

Should you consider a workplace wellness program? It can be complicated, but considering one is worth the time and effort.