Making Voluntary Wellness Easy
Jun 1, 2012
Today’s employers are all about helping employees get healthy, and wellness is the buzz when it comes to getting workers to engage in healthy behaviors. However, some companies have taken the attitude that if it doesn’t work right away, then they are not really interested in continuing the program or making it enjoyable for employees. If your organization’s staff is going to roll out a program to help your economic bottom line and impact all those who collect a paycheck from you, then as the executive in charge of benefits, you need to get on board and find out what works. And, you must make wellness easy if you want your employees to participate, even if the program is voluntary.
Communication is key. One way to communicate with employees is through social media. One in seven people on the planet now use Facebook, and millions of people are tweeting on Twitter, not to mention other websites used to interact with friends, co-workers, and family. According to Benz Communications, blogs are a simple and easy way to create web content and self-publish. They also give readers the opportunity to respond with comments and have a dialog with the author. Here’s how to use it for benefits:
Leadership communication (send out messages from the CEO in a blog format so employees can respond — make sure to address the comments!).
News and updates — almost anything can be communicated in a blog format, giving readers a chance to give instant feedback.
Public recognition and employee-driven recognition — let employees recognize each other’s accomplishments or add kudos to an official recognition.
According to the HR Management Report, employees can greatly benefit from wellness programs that provide inspiration and boost overall health in the workplace. While budgets may not support on-site sports or wellness centers, it is possible to get employees moving by incorporating a simple, customizable wellness program. Large companies like Nike+ (www.nikeplus.com) make it easy to boost participation through healthy competition. Slipping a transmitter chip into shoes that support Nike+ or plugging into Nike+-enabled workout equipment allows runners to track distance, pace, calories and time, as well as the ability to chart workout stats and progress on their iPod Nano, iPod Touch, iPhone, or Nike+ SportBand. After working out, users sync Nike+ to their computers, and workout data is automatically sent to nikeplus.com. Online, users can visually monitor progress, set goals, connect with others, and participate in challenges.
Nike+ delivers many of the benefits of working with a personal trainer and more. The system includes workout scheduling, digital coaching, a mapping feature, a social media widget and an online forum for connecting with friends and challengers around the world. On iTunes, users can purchase customized workout mixes to amplify their fitness regimes. Nike Sport Music selections include original albums by artists De La Soul and The Crystal Method, audio workouts, as well as special coaching mixes with music--led by athletes such as Alberto Salazar, Lance Armstrong and Serena Williams. Additionally, employees can participate virtually from anywhere in the world. Nikeplus.com has more than 2 million members worldwide, who have collectively logged more than 175 million miles. With Nike+, employees never have to train alone again. The Nike+ experience is a great team builder. At Nike for example, the footwear and apparel teams challenged each other to see which side could collectively log the most miles in a given timeframe (footwear won!). Challenges continue to spring up between genders, levels of seniority (this is a great way for executives to interact), departments and countries. Try a company-wide competition or challenge a rival organization to foster team morale.
Employees can easily broadcast their fitness successes on social media platforms such as Facebook, another means to maintain motivation. Consider the value of employees engaged in a company wellness program and actively promoting their employment brand. To link one’s Nike+ profile to popular social media applications, users simply adjust settings to automatically send workout status updates to Facebook and Twitter.
According to the American Institute for Preventive Medicine (AIPM), wellness programs have proved to be an effective tool to use in reining in health care costs. First and foremost, you need to look at health promotion as a process that involves a variety of activities rather than a one-time event. The field of wellness has come a long way over the past 20 years. There is now a good deal of data to justify the cost benefit of wellness. Not only will it improve the bottom line, but it will help employees feel better about themselves as well as about the organization where they work. However, companies must continue to help employees by providing better access and workable solutions. Among those ideas that work, consider the following:
- Address High-Risk Employees: Employees who have chronic conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, are considered to be high-risk employees. They tend to have health care costs that are about 100 to 500 times greater than the costs for healthy employees. It is important to provide a general wellness program to reach all your employees, but it is also important to reach high-risk employees since they represent a great cost. They may also be the people who are most resistant to changing their lifestyle or participating in your wellness programming.
- Other Suggestions Include Mental Health: Wellness is not just from the neck down. Psychological issues must also be addressed. A self-care guide for mental health issues can be distributed so people can make better decisions about when to contact their company's employee assistance program (EAP) or a private therapist. Low self-esteem is a problem for many individuals, and programs can be offered in this area. Social support is also critical. A study at the University of Michigan found that socially isolated adults are at as great a risk of developing heart disease as cigarette smokers. Classes for anger management, depression management and even laughter are all being offered at worksites to address the psychological component of health.
- Provide Proper Materials: It is very important that the wellness materials you give to your employees are appropriate. They must be written at the correct reading level for your population. There should also be ample white space, a big type face and culturally diverse illustrations.
- Use Incentives: The use of incentives to encourage people to change their lifestyles has become popular. Approximately 39% of companies offer either an incentive or a disincentive to motivate employees to improve their health behavior. Generally, it is better to reward employees for healthy behavior rather than punish them for unhealthy behavior. Incentives may take the form of charging less for plan contributions, offering lower coverage levels, providing reimbursement for wellness programs, giving premium discounts to employees who engage in healthy lifestyles and giving gifts, such as t-shirts, water bottles, golf equipment, etc., to those who participate in wellness programs. Incentives/disincentives to decrease tobacco use are the most common and are used by 84% of employers that offer incentives.
- Keep Programs Current: The field of health promotion is changing. The knowledge of how to motivate people and help them change their behavior has increased. Whatever type of wellness programming you offer, make sure it is current, accurate and up-to-date. If you distributed a self-care guide three years ago, it is probably out of date. You might want to consider giving out a new one. If you provided a smoking cessation program four years ago, a new approach may motivate more people to participate.
- Involve the Employee's Family: Employees account for only about 30% of health care costs, while dependents account for the remaining 70%. A program that reaches only employees and not their dependents is going to limit reductions in health care costs. That's why communication materials, self-help kits or a self-care guide that go to the home and can be used by the entire family are beneficial. Women also make 80% of the health care decisions for their families. If you are not reaching the female in the home, then you are not getting to an important decision maker.
- Use Low-Cost Wellness Options: Health promotion programs don't have to be costly. There are various types of programs that can be implemented for as little as $5 to $10 per employee, per year. Some activities don't have to cost anything at all. You could have a weight loss program by simply putting a scale in the union hall and posting a diet plan of the week. Or you could arrange for a competition among employees to see how many pounds they can lose and award a prize to the person who loses the most. A physical fitness program can consist of simply giving people a map that shows a one- or three-mile walk/run around the union hall. Putting in a shower will encourage people to do physical activity on their lunch hour. A stop-smoking program can involve a new smoking policy. Ten to fifteen percent of smoking employees will quit when smoking is banned at the worksite. A stress management program can consist of easy chairs in a quiet area where people can listen to relaxing music. A nutrition program can involve healthy heart choices in the company cafeteria or replacing potato chips and candy with yogurt and fresh fruit in the vending machines.
- Plan for Seasonal Changes and Interest: Wellness programs shouldn't become stagnant. New Year's is a good time to offer health promotion programs. In fact, the two most popular New Year's resolutions are quitting smoking and losing weight. The third Thursday of every November is the Great American Smoke-Out. It is a good time to offer smoking cessation classes. Spring is associated with weight reduction as people want to fit into their bathing suits. Fall is always a good time to offer wellness as people are getting back into a routine after the summer. Organizations can even promote wellness with a holiday. For instance, with Abe Lincoln's birthday, a company could offer a program titled "Be Honest About Heart Disease." Around Halloween, you could offer a program titled "Don't Be Scared of Stress."
The AIPM also encourages businesses and organizations to consider the components of a wellness program. First and foremost, you need to look at health promotion as a process that involves a variety of activities rather than a one-time event. The programs that tend to show the greatest return on investment involve four major components:
1. Assessment Activities: Assessment helps determine how unhealthy or healthy your employees are. This can take the form of a health screening where people get their height, weight, cholesterol and blood pressure checked to help employees learn about their health risks. It can also include a computerized analysis called a health risk appraisal (HRA). This consists of a confidential questionnaire that asks employees how often they smoke or drink alcohol, how much they weigh, how tall they are, if they have a family history of heart disease or cancer, etc. All of this information is then compared to other people of the same age, race and sex, as well as mortality data. This comparison will tell employees how likely they are to die of cancer, stroke, heart disease and seven other major illnesses 10 to 20 years in the future.
Many HRAs will also compute a health age versus an actual age. For instance, a person may be 48 years old, but because he or she lives a very healthy lifestyle, that individual's health age may be that of a 37 year old. On the other hand, an employee may be 43 years old, but because he or she lives a very unhealthy lifestyle, that individual's health age may be 62. The advantage to employees is that the HRA quantifies this abstract term called “lifestyle” and may motivate them to improve their health. Management receives a summary report that includes aggregate information about the entire employee population so it knows what health risks its employees face.
2. Communication Materials: Communication materials are very appropriate for multi-employer organizations because it is difficult to reach employees working at different worksites. They can include publications such as newsletters, paycheck stuffers, posters in the hallway and table tents in the cafeteria. Communication with workers about wellness must be done on an ongoing, consistent basis to be effective.
3. Self-Help Materials: Self-help interventions are also very appropriate. The field of health promotion has become very sophisticated in helping people help themselves. An advantage of self-help is that employees can change their behavior on their own time and in the privacy of their own homes. Examples include interactive websites, CD-ROMs/DVDs, computer programs, and booklets. Several wellness vendors provide toll-free counseling for employees who are trying to quit smoking, lose weight or manage stress on their own. Results can be quite impressive. The advantage of self-help is that you can reach employees who are unwilling or unable to attend a group class.
4. Group Programs: Group programs are actual classes conducted by an instructor who comes onsite to a workplace. Instructors may come from a local hospital or university, or somebody in a company's medical or benefits department may be trained to lead the classes. Group programs allow for interaction with a professional and other attendees. Unfortunately, it has become more difficult to get people to attend classes. Employees live in a time-deprived society where everybody is on the go. People don't have the time to devote to the five one-hour sessions of a stop-smoking program or the 16 weekly sessions of a weight loss class. This is not to say that classes shouldn't be offered, but you might find greater employee participation with self-help programs and communication materials.
Offer programs with short-term benefits, according to the AIPM. It's important to help people quit smoking, lose weight and lower cholesterol to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and stroke. By offering programs with short-term benefits, organizations can see an economic return within six to 12 months. This doesn't mean that you should ignore lifestyle behaviors that can reduce major illnesses, but rather you want to supplement those interventions with programs that have more immediate benefits. These include programs to increase seat belt usage, enhance consumer education, improve prenatal care and manage disabilities. Also, getting screened on an annual basis for chronic diseases helps to diagnose and prevent what potentially could be life-threatening medical situations.
Additionally, your company should teach medical self-care. Medical self-care represents one of the most promising ways to reduce health care costs. Medical self-care consists of teaching employees to become wiser consumers of the health care system. They learn when to seek professional assistance for health conditions that warrant it and when to use medical self-care for those symptoms that can be treated at home. You can empower employees to make better health care decisions as many don't know what to do when they have various symptoms, such as a fever, sore throat or earache. They should be able to recognize simple health care needs for preventive care, when to call their doctor or get a prescription, and when it’s time to seek urgent care.
Making wellness easy is possible, and your managers and employees will thank you for it. Providing solutions both for short-term and long-term positive results costs money, time and energy. The initial investment and continued infusion of capital, equipment, resources and staff over time definitely produces big pluses both in your organization or business and in your people. Encourage your employees to get involved. Voluntary benefits typically are paid for by employees, so it’s up to executive management to make your wellness program affordable, effective, fun and easy to use. It’s time to step up.
About the Author
Mark Roberts’ professional sales background includes 30 years of sales and marketing in the tax, insurance and investment markets. Mark is a licensed life, health and accident insurance agent in all 50 states and DC, for insurance products and discount health plans. He serves as Manager of National Accounts at Careington International Corporation (www.careington.com), plus discount dental and optical schemes in the UK (www.healthydiscounts.co.uk). Mark has been writing a health care blog for the past three years, (www.yourbesthealthcare.blogspot.com), which is a topical weblog about various health care issues. He also regularly contributes articles to magazines for both medical and dental topics both in the US and the UK. You can reach Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.