Over time, Chrysler LLC delivered a 2.6 to 1 return on investment for its wellness programs by engaging employees, offering company resources to those with high risk factors and rewarding healthy behaviors with premium incentives. Notably, the programs are completely voluntary.

"I think [these results] are significant because these programs aren't mandatory; people participate on their own," said Kate Kohn-Parrott, the former director of integrated healthcare and disability at Chrysler LLC. Now president and CEO of the Greater Detroit Area Health Council, Kohn-Parrott shared wellness best practices the car company achieved during her tenure as part of a webinar series presented by Change Agent Work Group and facilitated by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

In late 2003, Kohn-Parrott and her team analyzed all possible contributors to rising health care costs. They discovered that while they couldn't directly control certain factors, such as advancing evidence-based medicine, they could move the needle on a variety of employee and dependent lifestyle conditions.

By 2008, when Kohn-Parrott retired from the organization, Chrysler had significantly improved employee engagement around wellness and could measure its success by health improvements as well as financial savings. The slogan for the wellness campaign, "Healthy people drive our future," became a truism employees could see in action.

"We were looking at what we can do within the four walls of the company, [and where] we could make the biggest and quickest impact," she said.

When the company compared health risks for Chrysler employees to the American average, its employees had higher risks in all segments, driving considerably higher than average costs, based on Blue Cross Blue Shield data in Michigan.

Ultimately, the company decided to focus on four categories of risk most prevalent in their workforce: cardiovascular conditions, depression and stress, diabetes, and back pain.

Due to the physical nature of the automotive profession, many employees suffered from back pain, which contributed to more short-term disability claims and leave.

 

'We Got Your Back'

The company's most innovative wellness program, dubbed "We Got Your Back," targeted lowering the costs and risks associated with back pain. The pilot program showed 100 employees with back pain somatic muscle relaxation techniques and other methods to physically and mentally reduce stress.

At the conclusion of the pilot, 55% of participants were pain free, compared to only 5% of the 100 employees in a beta group that used traditional physical therapy. Eventually, the company introduced the program for people with any type of pain as well as employees with chronic stress.

The company also rewarded employees for their commitment to improving their health and behaviors. Workers enrolled in a health plan could receive $120 credit toward their premium contribution for completing a health risk assessment, another $120 if they attended health screenings and an additional $240 if they didn't smoke. In all, they had the opportunity to save $480 off their premium cost.

Overall, Chrysler posted a 40% to 50% employee participation rate in its voluntary wellness programs, and participation surged to above 90% for the programs that offered lowered premiums as incentives.

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