Employers counting on wellness programs to bend the benefits cost curve must include strong communication plans in their strategy if they hope to achieve their goals or risk wasting their investment in a sluggish economy.

That’s one of the key findings in a new white paper released by Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company. “Well on the Way: Engaging Employees in Workplace Wellness” uses proprietary and industry research, as well as case studies, to show how wellness initiatives can help employers control ever-higher health care and benefits costs, and the vital role of benefits communication in driving the effectiveness of these programs.

A growing number of employers are implementing programs that successfully reduce employee health risk factors and better manage chronic illness – the primary drivers of health care costs. And employees value these programs, research shows.

For example, nearly 90% of employees say the range of a company’s health and wellness benefits is either very important or somewhat important in their choice of an employer, according to the Workforce Management 2012 Employer/Employee survey conducted in May. Yet these employees still might not participate in wellness programs because of lack of information.

Most employers cite weak employee engagement as the biggest obstacle to changing their employees’ health risk behavior, the white paper reports, citing a Towers Watson “Viewpoints” report from last year. But more than half of workers say they don’t know enough about their company’s wellness programs to participate in them.

A new Colonial Life survey conducted online by Harris Interactive found that 52% of the 2,209 U.S. adults polled whose employers offer wellness programs say they’re only somewhat or not at all knowledgeable about them. Lack of knowledge is higher among younger workers, less educated workers and lower-paid workers.

“Just offering a wellness program and expecting a majority of employees to participate – the ‘if you build it, they will come’ scenario – is prone to failure,” said Steve Bygott, assistant vice president of marketing analysis and programs at Colonial Life. “Communication that clearly delineates the benefits of participation to employees is the first step to long-term engagement in wellness programs.”

The Workforce Management 2012 Employer/Employee survey shows wellness programs are often poorly understood – and there’s a surprising gap between what employers and employees think: 57% of employers believe their employees have a good understanding of the health and wellness programs offered and how to participate, but only 41% of employees agree they have a strong grasp of the programs offered.

The research shows that one-to-one employee communication, delivered in partnership with a benefits provider, offers a cost-effective means to build understanding and enhance engagement in these programs. Surveys with more than 20,000 employees who met individually with a benefits communication counselor show nearly all (96%) say it improved their understanding of benefits, and 98% say the interaction was important, according to the Colonial Life Benefits Post-Enrollment Survey conducted in July.

Beefing up communication through one-to-one benefits counseling can help drive participation in a company’s wellness offerings, as well as improve understanding and appreciation of the entire benefits package. The Harris Interactive poll for Colonial Life suggests that employers should pay extra attention to younger, less-educated and lower-paid employees who tend to have a significantly lower level of understanding about their benefits, including wellness programs, the white paper points out.

“Companies of all sizes can use wellness programs to improve employee health,” Bygott added. “By focusing on communication that addresses the needs and desires of key employee groups – particularly younger, less educated and lower paid workers – employers can successfully engage more program participants and enjoy greater benefits.”

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