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Employers look to wellness coaches to create, maintain healthy workforce

Focus switches from saving on costs to building long-term value

Employers look to wellness coaches to create, maintain healthy workforce

Employers are changing their views about health and lifestyle coaching as part of a wellness program.

“We are seeing more employers step back and saying dollar-for-dollar (return-on-investment) is short-sighted and tough to measure,” said Dr. Ron Leopold, Atlanta-based chief medical officer at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. Companies are looking for “any combination of reduction in medical costs, short-term disability, workers comp claims and improvement in engagement, loyalty, performance (and) employee satisfaction.”

About 70% of employers offered a wellness program in 2015, and 46% offered health and lifestyle coaching, according to the Society for Human Resource Management research. Such coaching can be used to help manage chronic diseases, weight- and stress-reduction efforts and smoking-cessation programs. While many employers initially focused on how wellness efforts affected the bottom line, more are focusing on the programs' ability to produce and retain a healthy workforce, experts say.

“The reasons are much broader than they used to be; for one employer, it was all about productivity,” said Stephanie Pronk, Minneapolis-based senior vice president and leader of the health transformation team at Aon Hewitt. “With return on investment, (companies) could never get enough people involved to see a real trend.”

Today's focus is on “value,” according to experts.

For example, Children's Mercy Hospitals & Clinics, a Kansas City, Missouri-based hospital system with 7,800 employees at seven campuses and 10 outreach centers, measures the success of its health-coaching program by gauging the reduction of nine areas of risk, including weight, stress, blood pressure, cholesterol and tobacco use, said Candice Gwin, employee wellness program manager at the health care system.

Children's Mercy Hospitals' health coaching efforts in 2015 reduced risks in seven of the nine areas and 16% overall, she said, adding that the reductions have continued.

“The monetary aspect is important, but when you take a step back, we know that we can take better care of those kids if we take better care of our employees,” Ms. Gwin said. “We want to do this (for our employees) because it's the right thing to do.”

“I think companies still want it to be quantified, but they are looking more at the value of health coaching,” said Kristin Behler, Allentown, Pennsylvania-based manager of health education and wellness at Populytics/BeneFIT Corporate Wellness, which offers wellness services. “Companies that buy into corporate wellness want to be seen as caring for their employees.”

Another trend is that companies have shifted their focus from risk identification — such as annual health screenings — to risk reduction, which is where health coaching comes in, said Fiona Gathright, Bethesda, Maryland-based president and CEO of Wellness Corporate Solutions L.L.C.

“The focus is on participants' goals and desires for changes,” she said. “Empowering employees to change their behaviors and lower their health risk is where the focus is.”

“Health coaching continues to grow, (and) traditional telephonic health coaching is only one mode; we are seeing the use of technology, chat coaching, video coaching and, of course, in-person coaching,” said Ms. Pronk.

Programs for every employer budget

Companies with more resources tend to adopt more robust programs, with smaller companies turning more often to remote, telephonic and Internet-based programs that cost less but can produce some of the same results, she said.

“The cost depends on the type of counseling; it can be minimal or a couple hundred dollars a year for each participant,” Ms. Pronk said.

According to a 2015 analysis by Mercer L.L.C., at least 83% of large companies offer disease management coaching; 71% offer telephonic or Internet-based counseling; and 36 % offer face-to-face counseling.

Still, Kristin Parker, Mercer's Norwalk, Connecticut-based principal and East market total health management leader, believes face-to-face counseling is on the rise.

“There's a resurgence of on-site face-to-face coaching,” Ms. Parker said. “The trend is for employers to have on-site clinics in place and broader well-being centers with coaching available.”

David Anderson, St. Paul, Minnesota-based chief health officer and co-founder of The Staywell Co., which provides health coaching services, said employers can still gain traction with more affordable telephone programs.

“The downside of (the face-to-face) approach is ... in terms of the relationship and the participant, it takes a bit longer for the person to open up when they are in front of you,” Mr. Anderson said. “Anonymity over the phone allows them to get to you quickly, and the phone (call) is task-oriented.”

When health coaching programs fail, anecdotal evidence points to timing as the reason why, Ms. Parker said.

“This is when the intervention is not brought to the employee at the right time,” she said.

Companies often adhere to strict enrollment periods for health coaching that coincide with health insurance open enrollment. The strategy, Ms. Parker and others said, often fails because a person could be diagnosed with a disease in the middle of the year and need the intervention then.

The solution is to offer health coaching programs all year and to “flag” individuals based on health claims, Ms. Parker said.

Dr. Leopold said mining health claim data and contacting employees who need intervention — often through a third party and with the employee's consent — is a delicate issue, but also is a hurdle companies can avoid by offering coaching to all employees.

“Offer generally and then (send) supplemental information” to targeted individuals, Dr. Leopold said. “The industry is getting more sophisticated.”

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