After he transitioned his company's basic health and vision plan to a more comprehensive health plan with a voluntary vision component in 2011, Maurice Evans, Jr., director of HR for Intetgral Group, LLC, worked tirelessly to communicate the changes to employees and let them know what they would gain if they enrolled in a vision benefit.

His commitment to educating employees about the benefit - as well as the link between eye health and overall health - led to a 30% enrollment spike in Integral's voluntary vision plan. So, it's easy to see - forgive the pun - why Evans was named the first-ever HR Visionary of the Year by vision service provider Transitions Optical.

Evans takes his educational role seriously after experiencing first-hand how vision care affected his personal life and his family. While he suffered eye strain from working at a computer and now wears Transitions glasses, it took a much larger toll on him seeing his grandmother and father struggle with diabetes - a disease which ultimately took both their lives. Both also had vision problems.

"I didn't find the correlation until this point in my life when I've been intimately connected with vision health and wellness. I understand the correlation now," Evans says, who emphasizes diabetes management for his workforce in conjunction with vision education.

Integral's 260-employee workforce skews older with many African-American workers, a demographic that stands a higher risk for eye health problems and diabetes.

"Our company is minority- owned and predominantly our workforce is an aging workforce of minorities, and diabetes is very prevalent in our community," he explains. "Having a minority workforce, it's important that we understand how diabetes can complicate vision. Progressive damage to blood vessels can cause vision impairment."

He reaches out to employees with biweekly communications like email blasts, take-home flyers or information on the employee website portal to promote vision health. He also presents real-life stories from the employee population to engage colleagues. For example, Integral's maintenance supervisor hoped to alleviate migraine headaches with sinus surgery, but discovered instead through a vision check-up that he simply needed to adjust his eyeglass prescription.

"It's important to provide relevant information through education, especially when it hits home," says Evans. Many people in his workforce have someone in their family who is affected by diabetes, or have an aging parent or someone close to them that is losing their vision.

That's why "my whole focus has been to make sure our workforce is educated and the information that we provide is such that you can take it home and share it with your family," he adds.

He firmly believes that taking care of vision and eye health is essential for employees to do their job, and that employees are more apt to pay attention to their vision benefit if it is presented as an overall wellness tool, not simply as an add-on benefit.


Once was blind

Prior to Evans' education campaign, many participants in Integral's vision plan didn't take advantage of wellness exams. After mandating all employees to attend open enrollment benefits meetings and bringing in providers to discuss health and vision offerings in depth, more employees began participating in the benefit and vision exams.

Evans now also hosts quarterly meetings on vision health in which he stresses both the importance of eye exams for disease prevention and the impact of proper vision on productivity. He provides tools like the Healthy Sight Calculator, which shows employees when health risks or eye problems could occur in their lifespan. Recently, he included a vision screening (through the company's vision plan provider) at one of his lunch & learns. The two-minute, in-office exam made it convenient for employees to check their vision health.

"Maurice did a good job threading [education and communication] throughout the year, so [the importance of vision benefits and eye exams was not only communicated] during open enrollment," says Smith Wyckoff, key account manager of the managed care/online retail division at Transitions Optical, Inc.

Evans feels employees are retaining the vision education, and that Integral's vision plan has played a role in cutting down on absenteeism and turnover.

"As our workforce gets even healthier, it impacts the cost of our benefits. This year our company saw a reduction in our cost of benefits," he says, adding that maintaining eye health "translates into a healthier workforce, which translates into a lower renewal cost for your benefits, which translates into lowering your out-of-pocket expenses towards paying for your benefits."

As only 16% of employees reported receiving education from their employer related to their eye health in a recent Transitions survey, employers are missing a great opportunity to reinforce the value of vision benefits and to promote eye and overall health.

While nearly eight in 10 employees surveyed by Transitions were enrolled in their vision plan, 36% did not use it to get an eye exam.

Checking their eyes could result in detecting other problems, such as diabetes, pre-diabetes or high blood pressure since the eye is the only body part where blood vessels are exposed. Workers can improve their general health and prevent expensive and debilitating chronic diseases down the road by taking advantage of their vision benefits now. Further, employers can lower overall health costs and reduce absenteeism by emphasizing the importance of their vision plan and encouraging employees to take advantage of regular eye exams.

For his part, Evans integrates vision education with Integral's overall wellness campaign. On a monthly basis, the company organizes a particular initiative to promote overall health. In the past, such efforts have included a "Chug-a-Jug" contest to encourage employees to drink more water, a "Biggest Loser" contest and a 5K run challenge. Evans also has hosted lunch & learns and health fairs where employees can check their blood work, get glucose and heart rate screenings and enjoy healthy cooking demos.

"I think you need to understand your workforce and know their needs," Evans says. "If you have a lot of employees working on computers, you need to understand how to communicate and provide information on glare and the effects of working on terminals. You also need to make it relevant and [deliver communication] in real time."



Eye exam can detect general health issues

Many individuals aren't aware of the extensive health issues that can be checked and maintained through vision exams and awareness. A well-communicated vision plan that helps participants catch chronic disease early can lower health insurance costs for the overall health plan and maintain safety in the workplace.

"There are a lot of other health issues and things that can be changed [through a vision exam] that people don't think about," says Smith Wyckoff, key account manager of the managed care/online retail division at Transitions Optical, Inc. He recommends that even if people have good vision, it's still important to use the vision benefit and get an eye exam to help detect general health issues.

While the majority of employees acknowledged that diabetes and hypertension could cause eye health issues, only a third or less knew that both diseases can be diagnosed through an eye exam, finds a Transitions Optical survey (see chart.) Further, very few employees knew that an eye exam can help detect high cholesterol (11%), Alzheimer's disease (6%) and other mental disorders such as manic depression and bipolar disorder (3%).

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