Leading U.S. organizations are turning to prevention-based employee health benefits to improve workforce health and reduce health care costs. Yet, according to a survey released this week by Virgin HealthMiles, there's a critical awareness gap threatening that strategy's success.

Most organizations surveyed (83%) say they offer employee health and wellness benefits, with 81% citing "reducing health care costs" as top priority. But there's a gap between employers' perceptions of employee awareness and understanding of these benefits, and what employees say.

More than half of employers believe employees have a good understanding of their range of health and wellness benefits and how they can participate. Not so, say employees. Only 41% of employees say they had a good awareness of available programs. And fewer than 50% say they understand how to participate.

“If employees aren't aware of their employers' programs and how to participate, health behaviors won't change,” says Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin HealthMiles. “This is a traditional problem with how employee health and wellness has historically been done. If organizations don't get this right, they won't get the business impact they seek from their employee health investments."

The survey was released to mark June's fourth annual National Employee Wellness Month. Created in 2009 by Virgin HealthMiles in partnership with the Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance, this year's initiative is also sponsored by the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease and WorldatWork. More than 140 organizations across the country and over 65,000 of their employees have pledged their support for this important initiative.

"Progressive employers know employee health and wellness benefits are vital in helping to lower health care costs and retain top talent," says Tom Abshire, SVP of products and marketing of Virgin HealthMiles. "Our research shows most employees want to engage. But employers really need to focus on how to promote and manage these programs, and how to get the data they need from their providers so they can make actionable decisions that improve their employee health strategies."

Three key survey findings:

1. More than 89% of employees say an employer's range of health and wellness benefits are either "very" or "somewhat" important in their choice of employer.

2. Employers say the top employee health benefits they offer include smoking cessation, HRAs and physical activity programs. But employees often responded "I don't know" when asked if their employers offered certain programs, further highlighting the awareness challenge employers face.

3. While social media is a hot topic for HR, few organizations (9%) have adopted new  consumer-driven communication channels like it to promote their employee health programs. Even though the awareness issue continues to flag, employers primarily turn to traditional methods to promote benefits. Top methods include periodic emails, intranets/websites, on-site posters/signage, newsletters/ company publications and health fairs/on-site events.

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