February 1, 2012

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Healthy and Happy

Companies Reap the Benefits of a Healthier Workforce

Heather Stewart

February 1, 2012

With healthcare costs on a steep, upward trajectory, employers are becoming more creative in their efforts to promote wellness. With both carrots and sticks, companies are prodding employees to take control of their health through a variety of methods, from on-site flu shots to comprehensive weight-loss programs.

            In early 2011, Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health released a study that found employers are increasingly relying on incentives to get employees to participate in wellness programs. Employers tried several types of incentives, from cash and gift cards to additional contributions to health savings accounts.

            The study looked at nearly 150 mid- to large-size companies and found that employers of this size were spending an average of $430 per employee on incentives—an increase of 65 percent from 2009. Half of the surveyed companies added one new wellness program in 2010 and more than 60 percent planned to add another in 2011.

            Some companies are also experimenting with “negative” incentives—for example, reducing employer contributions to health plans for employees who do not participate in the company wellness program. Just this year, Intermountain Healthcare increased benefit premiums for employees who smoke tobacco. However, by entering a smoking cessation program, employees can reduce their premiums back to the standard rate.



It can be difficult to measure the return on investment for implementing wellness programs in the workplace. A healthier workforce can lead to lower insurance premiums and fewer worker’s compensation claims. Indirectly, wellness programs can increase worker productivity and reduce absenteeism.

            But wellness programs don’t necessarily have to cost an arm and a leg. SelectHealth provides no-cost “turn-key” wellness programs to its employer groups. “We develop programs that they can implement very easily,” says Meg Danielson, manager of health and wellness for SelectHealth.

            Each quarter, SelectHealth provides a new program that its employer groups can implement if they wish. For example, the current program is a “Summer Slim Down” that encourages weight loss in preparation for swimsuit season. Employees form teams to see which team can lose the most weight during the competition. With a series of weigh-ins, the teams help the individuals be accountable to each other, but take the weigh-in pressure off of each person.

            SelectHealth encouraged its own employees to participate in its “Maintain, Don’t Gain” program for the holiday season. In addition to the team weigh-ins, the company followed up regularly with healthy recipe ideas, diet tips and motivational thoughts.

            The only direct cost for employers to implement these programs is the cost of a prize for the winning team, which could be anything from a company t-shirt to Jazz tickets.

            Other programs emphasize physical activity. The “Catch a Flight” program, for example, gets employees to compete to see who can climb the most flights of stairs over the course of a few weeks. The “Walking Trails” program encourages employees to take walks on trails and walkways near the office.

            Danielson says that companies report tremendous results from these simple efforts. “We hear all the time that, ‘We initiated this program and see people losing weight all around us…people are even requesting we change the food in the cafeteria!’”

            SelectHealth also provides free health fairs for its employer groups. At the fairs, SelectHealth conducts blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat and blood glucose screenings, which can give individuals a heads up that they may need to make changes. The fairs also feature educational information about diet, nutrition and exercise.

            “We want people to feel empowered to take control of their health. You do have control over whether you become a type 2 diabetic later in life,” says Danielson. “We know the biggest contributor to that is excess body weight.”

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