Holding wellness programs to higher standards

Wellness programs are all the rage for employers these days, but that doesn't mean such programs are immune to criticism.

One critic, for instance, recently wrote that the programs are “a cheap way to appear concerned about workers.” His perspective is somewhat understandable: After all, today’s marketplace is saturated with companies tackling health issues. HR departments tend to approach variety over efficiency. But the other option — do nothing — is not acceptable.

Take into account these staggering statistics that create the case for wellness: Workplace stressors are the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and stress accounts for 120,000 annual deaths and up to 8% of annual healthcare costs, according to research from Stanford Business School Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in his book Dying for a Paycheck (Harper Business 2018).

From an employer's perspective, these risk factors harm the longevity of workers and their productivity. Using Britain’s Healthiest Workplace data, we’ve found that lifestyle risks such as inactivity and insufficient sleep account for five to six days of work impairment annually, while mental well-being risks including depression account for a startling 19 days.

This offers a tremendous opportunity for effective wellness solutions. The issue is one of design.

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So how can employers get the most bang for their wellness buck? Here are some strategies that will help your clients create an effective wellness program.

Ensure the product changes behavior. Incentives do not work in a vacuum. Our rewards program with Apple Watch is an example of the impact that can be generated by the successful combination of technology (an engaging mobile application with the Apple Watch), incentives (the promise of a heavily discounted products and weekly rewards for attaining one’s physical activity goals), and science (drawing on behavioral science principles ranging from loss aversion to commitment). RAND Europe’s report on the program shows that when done correctly, incentives can generate significant sustained improvements in behavior, regardless of age, gender and health status.

Address the needs of the population, while remaining cognizant of the unique needs of the individual. While it’s important to have a program that caters to chronic conditions and diseases, such conditions should be addressed in a broader program in that personalizes programs based on individual risk profiles and preferences.

Make health reporting central to broader corporate reporting. Workforce health metrics should be an indicator of overall organizational performance. Good metrics can show leadership accountability, engagement and participation, all critical determinants of program success.

Wellness programs need to be held to higher standards of scientific veracity of accountability. When this is done, the opportunity exists to integrate wellness into insurance systems — in which behavior changes impact price and rewards protection. The outcome is a robust, sustainable health and wellness system driven by integration and evidence with benefits for members, insurers and employers alike.

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