Engaging Employees in Wellness

To be truly effective, an employee wellness initiative need a thoughtful and strategic framework tailored to employees’ specific needs and buttressed by proper execution and a plan for evaluation.

By Maria Mazursky, CEO of TourDeFIT.com

With health-care costs on the rise, many companies are looking for affordable, scalable, and innovative options for engaging their employees and keeping them healthy, happy, and productive. Indeed, problems such as diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome, and high blood pressure due to physical inactivity—not to mention systemic problems such as absenteeism, workers’ compensation costs, voluntary attrition, and low morale—are growing at an alarming rate, putting undue pressure on today’s corporate health benefits budgets. 

The numbers speak for themselves. Here in the U.S., a mere 1 in 5 adults meets the CDC’s Guidelines for Physical Activity, and recent estimates by the World Health Organization indicate that the number of clinically obese adults has more than doubled since 1980, now extending to a third of the population. What’s more, the Brookings Institute estimates that close to 21 percent of all current medical spending in our country is related to obesity.

The average annual loss in productivity per worker due to sick days is $28,800, according to the Gallup Management Journal. Obese Americans spend approximately 36 percent more on health-care costs and 77 percent more on medications than their healthy counterparts, according to the Brookings Institute.

A recent study conducted by the Harvard Wellness Program (Baicker, Cutler, and Song 2010), titled, “Workplace Wellness Programs Can Generate Savings,” found that medical costs fall by an estimated $3.27 for every dollar spent on workplace wellness programs and that absenteeism costs similarly fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent.

With all of these statistics in mind, a large number of corporations now are implementing robust workplace wellness initiatives. To be truly effective, such initiatives need a thoughtful and strategic framework tailored to employees’ specific needs and buttressed by proper execution and a plan for evaluation.

Building a Healthy Program: Put Employees First

It is crucial that new employee wellness initiatives unite with a company’s culture, personnel, and long-term goals. Productive programs consider employees’ needs first and offer creative solutions to help them meet those health goals. Remember also to take into account the bigger picture from the perspective of the employee; many plans offer fitness and wellness options for the entire family, including activities for children.

Indeed, the most successful corporate wellness programs offer something for everyone—from the business traveler looking to find a gym in a far-flung location, to the telecommuter looking for a nearby kick-boxing class, to the committed dieter looking for a nutritionist in his or her area, to the regular employee looking to increase his or her fitness level.

Making Workplace Wellness Work

More important than just implementing such an initiative, however, is to properly see it through. Many companies can be quick to dive into the workplace wellness pool with large, sweeping programs that are doomed to failure due to a lack of planning, engaging communications, employee engrossment, and/or long-term vision. This is where patience, planning, and foresight in developing, implementing, and managing a workplace wellness program truly can pay dividends.

Another common trend found in many successful workplace wellness programs is strategic partnerships within and outside the company. Outside wellness vendors and consultants allow both small and medium-sized organizations with limited internal bandwidth to leverage new resources and connections without the burden of enhancing their own wellness infrastructure.

Defining and Measuring Success

Companies also would be wise to have a firm system of metrics in place before undertaking a wellness program. Without a way to properly gauge a program’s successes and failures, companies are relegated to a trial-and-error mindset that breeds inefficiencies and wastes time.

When setting up a corporate wellness program, some common metrics that can and should be utilized include: participation, depth of engagement, and sustainability (which measures the number of employees who continue to engage in certain risk-reducing behaviors, even in the absence of guidance from a program).

Another trickier metric to analyze is overall employee satisfaction with a wellness initiative. It is important to remember that you are dealing with employees who have their own wants, needs, and concerns throughout every step of the process. If, as a company, you rush into a program before properly laying the groundwork with employees and sufficiently engaging management, you run the risk of having your employees go elsewhere for their health and wellness needs—or worse, neglecting those needs entirely.

Beyond the metrics of a given program, there is also the challenge of measuring its return on investment (ROI) in terms of reduced health benefits costs, increased productivity, and positive shifts in organizational culture. With this, again, patience is a key factor in laying the groundwork for serious, sustained preventative health-care for employees and their dependents. Indicators of ROI that can and should be evaluated include health benefts costs, which can be calculated through claims analysis; productivity; and voluntary turnover.

And let’s not forget creativity in communications and branding as a crucial part of any workplace wellness initiative. Because you are dealing with such a complex and multifaceted issue as employee wellness, it is crucial to formulate a program that is both inclusive of, and approachable by, audiences of diverse health and wellness backgrounds. The key to this may be developing a multi-dimensional, multimedia approach. An open wellness plan needs to be branded as such; otherwise employees will feel uncomfortable with total participation.

And how about positive reinforcement? When it comes to health and wellness, employees need to take initiative and responsibility. Realistic, workable incentives from the company will go a long way toward helping make that happen.

Maria Mazursky is CEO of TourDeFIT.com, which creates and manages corporate wellness programs, customized to meet the specific needs of companies and their employees. The firm is a one-stop fitness and wellness concierge that provides employers with surveys, testing and assessments, unique programming, engaging communications, online enrollment, tracking and reporting, as well as an online “Expedia,” with special corporate rates for thousands of fitness and wellness facilities and providers.

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