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Employers focus on physical, mental issues' effect on performance

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SAN FRANCISCO — Top U.S. employers are focusing on finding the value on investment of wellness and mental health programs, instead of focusing solely on affecting the bottom line of the company.

Employers speaking Monday during a panel discussion at the Integrated Benefits Institute's Annual Forum in San Francisco said they are finding more success with wellness programs by connecting worker health to top-line business measures instead of focusing solely on health costs and other financial metrics.

“We're trying to move away from health being a return on investment on a program,” Dr. Ben Hoffman, chief medical officer of global health services at Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric Co., said during the panel discussion. “We're looking at health as a value. And when you start thinking of health as a value, you start focusing less on quantifying things because frankly it's very difficult ... to quantify the impact of a lot of these programs.”

“We want to make sure that we're tying everything back to the business because, ultimately, the only reason we're all there is to build tires,” said Dr. Brent Pawlecki, chief medical officer of Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

At American Express Co., for example, health care, pharmacy, disability, workers comp costs, as well as data from health risk assessments and biometric screenings, are integrated in a database, tracked and analyzed to “not only manage our costs” but to show which areas of the business performance are affected by workers' health issues, said Dr. Wayne Burton, global corporate medical director of New York-based American Express.

“The point is to link the health of our employees in the U.S., but also outside the United States, to the productivity and the business needs,” Dr. Burton said.

After initiating the database in 2011, American Express found that the mental health of the workers in its call centers was a driver “not of costs related to health care or pharmacy benefits, but a driver of disability … and also a driver of productivity,” Dr. Burton said.

At its call centers, which are staffed predominantly by young women, the major mental health concerns included depression, anxiety disorders and stress, which weighed on the productivity and quality of the workers' customer service, Mr. Burton said.

By linking workers' health risk assessments to customer service surveys, the firm found that customer service suffered as a result of the mental health issues among workers at the call centers.

In response, American Express hired mental health counselors for its onsite clinics in the United States, expanded its employee assistance program and hired a psychologist to help direct its mental health initiatives, Dr. Burton said.

“Healthier employers are able to provide better customer service,” he said. As workers' mental health improved, so did customer service quality at American Express.