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Small, midsize employers rethinking wellness offerings

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Small and midsize employers are fine-tuning their workplace wellness strategies by pulling back on some programs that may not be worth the expense, according to a new survey.

Employers are backing away from wellness program mainstays such as on-site flu vaccinations, health and lifestyle coaching, and 24-hour nurse hotlines, which have decreased in prevalence over the past five years, according to a survey released Monday by the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Now that (wellness programs) have been in place for a while, organizations are looking at what works well, which ones don't, which ones employees are utilizing, which are not as interesting and which ones are not making as much of an impact,” said Evren Esen, director of survey programs at SHRM in Alexandria, Virginia.

Some programs have seen sharp declines in the past year.

For instance, 72% of employers provided employees with wellness tips and resources this year, down from 80% in 2015.

Sixty-one percent of employers offered general wellness programs this year, down from 70% in 2015, according to the SHRM survey of 3,490 employers that was conducted in January and February. Most organizations surveyed had less than 500 employees.

Fifty-four percent of employers offered on-site flu shots this year, down from 61% last year, and 44% offered a 24-hour nurse line, down from 51% in 2015.

Few wellness strategies grew in prevalence over the past five years, according to SHRM.

Still, of the one-third of employers who increased their benefits offerings in the past year, 45% of those increased their wellness-related benefits.

Focus shifting

Wellness programs have been “at the forefront” of employee strategies “for the last five years,” Ms. Esen said. “So I don't think they're going away. It's something that really energizes employees. We see employees actively participating in these kinds of programs.”

It is possible employers are shifting their focus from traditional wellness strategies to offerings such as standing desks and fitness monitoring devices.

Thirty-three percent of employers offered standing desks to their employees this year, up from 25% last year. And 10% of employers gave employees fitness bands and trackers this year, down from 13% last year.

But time will tell if the new benefits have staying power, Ms. Esen said.

On the other hand, larger employers are putting more resources into wellness and broadening the scope of programs to include mental and financial health, said Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy at the National Business Group on Health in Washington.

A March NBGH/Fidelity Investments study of 129 companies, most of which have more than 5,000 employees, showed that 96% of employers provided wellness programs focused on physical health this year, 87% provided emotional or mental wellness programs, and 76% offered financial wellness programs.

In addition, 67% of employers in the NBGH survey plan to expand their investment in well-being programs in the next three to five years.

Larger employers have more resources to devote to wellness programs and often have large concentrations of employees at a single location, which Mr. Wojcik said makes on-site wellness programs more cost-effective.

“It makes good sense for a large employer to spend money to help employees stay well. It's broader than … reducing health care costs,” he said, and considers “overall morale and productivity and all those kinds of intangibles.”