Employers just can’t get enough of wellness. In 2010, nearly 75% of 147 mid- to large-size employers offered 19 or more health promotion programs, finds a study by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health.

In addition, 50% of employers extended their wellness offerings by adding one new wellness program, and 63% plan to do the same in 2011.

According to the survey, nearly 40% of employers plan to add health-risk management programs, such as biometric testing, to their wellness offerings in 2011. Thirty-two percent intend to roll out lifestyle management programs, such as preventive care reminders, while 30% will add communication and education management programs, such as health and wellness newsletters.

"Growing numbers of employers nationwide recognize the importance of having a healthy workforce and its link to improving productivity and reducing rising health care costs," says Helen Darling, president and CEO of NBGH. "We believe strongly that the various wellness initiatives that employers are undertaking will have long-lasting positive results for employers, workers and their families," she adds.

The findings underscore employers’ willingness to invest financial resources to help workers to stay healthy and productive, thus making wellness programs a noticeable business benefit.

The data showed that the average employer spent just $154 per employee on health improvement programs, compared to $108 in 2009. One big-ticket item in the wellness arsenal included condition management programs, such as monitoring diabetes treatment, which made up 41% of the $154 spend, a decline from 43% in 2009.

Meanwhile, health-risk management programs, such as health fairs, witnessed a spending jump of 20% in 2010 from 15% in 2009, while the budget for lifestyle management programs, such as stress management, remained nearly the same, 29% in 2010 and 30% in 2009.

To ensure employees participate in the programs, companies are mostly relying on financial incentives. The survey revealed that employers (56%) believe incentive-based programs increased employee participation.

For instance, 62% of employers offered incentives last year, compared to 57% in 2009. Cash and gift cards and extra funds to health savings accounts were popular incentives used by employers. Few (12%), however, reduced employer contributions to health plans if employees didn’t participate in any programs. 

On average, the incentives paid by employers totaled $430 per employee in 2010, a 65% jump from $260 in 2009. Of those employers that provided incentives, 50% offered them to dependents of employees at an average value of $420.

"Employers know that a healthier workforce is more productive in the long term," says Sunit Patel, senior vice president of Fidelity’s benefits consulting business. "Wellness programs in the past have typically had modest impact because of low participation rates, but our study indicated that incentives are starting to make a real difference in employee interest and engagement," he adds.

Fidelity and NBGH conducted the online survey between Sept. 20, 2010 and Oct. 29, 2010, which involved 147 companies that employed from 1,000 to 100,000 workers.

The survey participants represent various labor sectors, such as transportation, health care, technology, entertainment, manufacturing, retail and energy productions. Still, the researchers caution that "the results of this survey may not be representative of all companies meeting the same criteria as those surveyed for this study."

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