Benefits managers often find themselves stranded in no-man’s land when it comes to bringing wellness to a workplace. As a concept, wellness is a thriving and transformative experience for many employers, but justifying those costs – or adopting a wait-and-see attitude to measuring a wellness program’s success – is a difficult case to make with a company’s financial decision-makers.

In tracing the wellness success story of Elkay Manufacturing – whose wellness program saw a 76% reduction in major health issues among staff most likely to incur substantial health care costs, not to mention a projected increase in 2015 health care premiums limited to just 1.8% - some of the secret may lie in the unconventional approach taken by the company’s wellness champion.

Carol Partington, corporate manager of compensation and benefits with the 3,000-employee maker of sinks and water coolers – speaking at last week’s EBN Benefits Forum and Expo – said her company’s unimpressive early results with wellness required her to take a more straight-forward tack.

“You need to get leadership support to create an effective program, but you also don’t want to scare the hell out of senior management,” Partington says. “My approach was, ‘I know where I’m going, I’m just not telling everyone where we’re going yet.’ You also can’t be too aggressive; you need to put disciplined steps in place, and be willing to be flexible.”

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And while most company executives need to be shown the hard facts before committing to any additional wellness spend, Partington says she simply admitted to her company’s leaders – a business founded in 1920 – that return on investment is often impossible to demonstrate in a wellness effort, opting to emphasize value of the investment instead. Rogue as that may seem, Elkay’s current wellness results – and its low anticipated health care cost increases – earned her the respect of her managerial team.

“We have a company that’s 70% manufacturing workers, in 15 locations across the country, two of which are unionized, and I don’t get a lot of time with people,” she notes. “But my job is to remove distractions from our employees’ lives – we work in a setting where people can lose body parts if they’re worried about their own health, their parents, their sick kids. How can I give them a solution that works?”

Elkay first adopted biometric testing-based wellness in 1994, offering a $25 incentive to employees to participant, but Partington says that the company so almost no results after 12 years, with the company still paying approximately $23 million a year on its employee health care plan. Partington said a high-deductible plan never fit into Elkay’s culture, and costs continued to escalate. Evan a $700 premium differential for employees who demonstrated better health results wasn’t the answer, she says.

“We asked our employees why they took part in the health screenings, and most said they were doing it just to get the premium. I realized we’d failed in our mission,” she notes. “And with no dedicated wellness staff at our company, wellness is only 15% of what I can pay attention to – it’s one of my many responsibilities.”

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Partington opted to join forces with Interactive Health to introduce an evidence-based program that could seriously improve her employees’ health, especially those with the most potential health risks, as well as actively addressing those escalating health plan costs. The use of aggregated health data was instrumental in finding some customized solutions for workers.

She says it was also critical to match any incentive programs to company culture, a task somewhat more difficult as Elkay has manufacturing sites in more than a dozen very different and often remote parts of the country. In some rural sites, hunting and fishing licenses were seen as extremely valuable commodities, or even Jiffy Lube coupons for oil changes.

Partington also shied away from gamification efforts, given employees’ limited access to email and smartphones, and also did not establish fitness challenges as a company-wide initiative. She says she also had to be mindful of other cultural differences: Championing the company’s successful tobacco-cessation efforts at a manufacturing site in the middle of tobacco-growing country, where employees’ spouses and families were often employed in that business, required a bit of extra sensitivity.

In the end, by personalizing the incentives and communication, Elkay has created an almost $1,200 differential in its better-health insurance rates, resulting in a 20% savings. Of 636 employees tracked with a litany of five serious current or potential health indicators, Elkay produced a 76% reduction in those health issues. And 77% of employees taking part in more personalized health tracking met their personal health goal in the second year of the enhanced program.

“Change is hard,” Partington says. “So you gotta talk a lot.”

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