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Employers look beyond wellness

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Employers are expanding their view of the ways in which workplace wellness programs can improve employee health outcomes, as well as generate positive financial and operational results.

Though most workplace wellness programs in the U.S. are still designed primarily to address physical health, many employers have modified their programs to include activities, initiatives, services and incentives aimed at improving their employees’ overall well-being.

“It’s what I like to call ‘designing for impact,’” said Seth Serxner, chief health officer at the Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based benefits consultant Optum Inc. “It’s a matter of offering the right mix of programs for your workforce and creating the right kind of engagement model, which encompasses your company’s culture, the communications you use and the incentives you put in place.”

And while employee participation and aggregate health care costs remain the dominant metrics by which employers evaluate their workplace wellness efforts, the ever-present need to demonstrate their programs’ net value to their organizations has prompted some to begin tracking their programs’ effect on non-health-care-related business risks.

Wellness vs. well-being

As a concept, employee “well-being” generally encompasses an individual’s physical, mental and/or emotional health, financial security, social connectivity and professional fulfillment.

Nearly two-thirds of employers polled in Optum’s 2015 “Wellness in the Workplace Study” said their wellness strategies now include programs aimed at addressing mental and behavioral health issues within their workforce. Thirty-five percent of employers offer programs designed to improve their employees’ financial stability, and 31% offer programs designed to enhance their employees’ social health.

“Employers are increasingly getting the idea that this war won’t be won solely by figuring out how to change employees’ physical health risks,” said LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health.

In particular, Ms. Heinen said, employers are becoming more keenly aware of the effect that an employee’s mental and emotional well-being can have on their physical health and job performance.

“We’ve seen stress and resilience become a big focus for a lot of employers,” Ms. Heinen said.

Sixty-eight percent of large and midsize employers polled this year by the NBGH and Fidelity Investments indicated that they would offer stress management programs and resources — such as on-site quiet rooms, meditation and resiliency training — as part of their overall wellness strategy in 2015, and another 9% were considering adding the programs as early as 2016.

“Obviously, (employee assistance programs) and short-term counseling are the long-standing solution in the marketplace to address stress, and there has been a push lately to rebrand and increase the utilization of EAPs,” Ms. Heinen said. “But companies are also beginning do things like set up quiet rooms on-site and provide mindfulness training.”

Employers are also increasingly offering programs that do not address stress directly, but rather are aimed at alleviating the root causes of stress within their workforce, primarily financial issues and caregiving responsibilities.

More than one-quarter of employers polled in December 2014 by the Scottsdale, Arizona-based nonprofit benefits and human resources association WorldatWork said they now offer child care assistance to their employees, and 20% said they offer elder care assistance.

Additionally, experts say employers are making an increasingly concerted effort to infuse their wellness programs with opportunities for social interaction among their employees, both as a participation driver for health-related wellness activities and as a method of increasing employees’ broader sense of connectedness within their organization.

“The social aspect is where we’re starting to see a lot of uptick,” said Stephanie Pronk, a Minneapolis-based principal at Aon Hewitt. “Especially where you have wellness exercise challenges that are team-based and that encourage peer involvement; that’s where we’re seeing much higher participation rates and higher instances of employees sustaining the healthy behavior after completing the challenge. You also get the ancillary benefits of better teamwork and better attitudes in the workplace.”

Value of investment

Alongside their gradual embrace of a more comprehensive approach to the designs of their wellness programs, employers are also expanding the methodologies they use to gauge the total value of their investment in those programs.

Unlike return-on-investment assessments that focus on the cost of a wellness program versus its effect on aggregate health care costs, experts say value-of-investment assessments account for its cost-effectiveness across all business operations, for a more complete view of a program’s worth.

“A lot of employers are beginning to see wellness as part of their overall human capital strategy and concluding that if their employees are healthier, their business is going to do better,” Optum’s Mr. Serxner said. “It becomes less of a cost containment strategy and more of a business performance strategy, and we are seeing more employers implement the kinds of programs that drive those outcomes beyond just reducing health care costs.”

According to a study published in February by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, the most popular value-of-investment metrics used by employers to measure wellness success are disability and workers compensation claims, employee absences, workforce turnover, productivity and jobsite safety performance.

“The mantra that we’ve been endorsing is to keep your eye on business outcomes. And we’re seeing more employers looking at the issues that cost companies in their industry a lot of money and then identifying the kinds of programs that most effectively reduce those costs,” Ms. Heinen said.

According to data compiled by Franklin, Tennessee-based health care consultant Healthways Inc., employees that achieve a 10% improvement in their overall well-being average 5% fewer unscheduled absences and a 24% reduction in presenteeism (employees coming to work at reduced capacity and, thus, productivity), as well as a 2.2% reduction in the likelihood of a hospital admission and a 1.7% decline in the likelihood of an emergency room visit.

Additionally, Healthways’ data indicate that a health management strategy that embraces the full scope of an employee’s well-being is on average more than twice as effective at curbing productivity losses than a wellness program centered solely on physical health.

“Those are some pretty powerful impacts generated from just a modest lift in employees’ overall well-being,” said Jim Purvis, vice president of well-being improvement design at Healthways.

“We’ve been able to demonstrate that by using this well-being index on an individual level and at the business level, we can get to these levels of higher productivity and performance,” Mr. Purvis added.