Why employers should include spouses in well-being programs

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Employers who want to promote better health and wellness among their employees would be well served to look beyond the office and into the home. By involving spouses and domestic partners in wellness offerings, employers can create a support system at home that has the potential to drive better health and performance at work.

A number of studies over the years have shown links between social environment and health. If the people around you drink, smoke or eat too much, you are likely to follow suit. Surround yourself with marathoners who eat a strict diet of vegetables and there’s a better chance you’ll be fit. The same goes for spouses and domestic partners.

An individual whose partner lowered his or her BMI is likely to follow suit, according to new research from epidemiologist Andrew Rundle. There were similar links related to blood pressure and both high- and low-density lipoprotein. Those kinds of connections could lead to some meaningful benefits for businesses.

Financial performance and improved employee health are only part of the equation. While spouses represent about one-fifth of covered members in employee health plans, they generate nearly one-third of healthcare costs, according to data from the Health Enhancement Research Organization Health and Well-being Best Practices Scorecard in collaboration with HR consulting firm Mercer. Including spouses in health improvement efforts, then, could result in measurable savings.

Employers can contribute to this social influence. By allowing spouses to take part in well-being programs, they may drive better participation from employees. Data from the HERO Scorecard support that idea. For example:

· 28% of employees participated in lifestyle coaching if a spouse was involved, compared to 14% with no spousal involvement.
· 88% of employers reported improvements in health risk with spousal involvement, compared to 81% without.
· 70% reported positive impact on medical trend with spousal involvement, compared to 64% without.

One area of particular concern when it comes to healthcare costs is mental health and wellness.

The United States spent about $201 billion last year on behavioral problems such as anxiety and depression – more than any other medical condition and $122 billion more than a decade ago. As employers increasingly focus on mental health, there is evidence social support — and spousal support in particular — can mitigate the effects of stress on those conditions and more.

The benefits of including spouses in wellness efforts are not strictly financial. A 2016 Harvard Business Review survey found that 70% of participants in employee well-being programs felt the program was an indication their employers supported them. Extending wellness support to family members only strengthens that connection.

Improving a spouse’s well-being might even make an employee more productive.

Research suggests, perhaps counterintuitively, that people who are in happy relationships at home spend more time at work, and that having a conscientious spouse makes a person more likely to earn bigger paychecks or get promoted. A separate 2013 study also showed links between marital satisfaction and job satisfaction.

In short, the more stable things are at home, the better able employees are to focus at work. Logically, that extends to well-being. If you’re not worried about health troubles at home, you will be more focused at work.

Spouses are not simply observers in each other’s wellness efforts, as Ashlin Jones, director of research and advanced data science at Sharecare, pointed out in a presentation at the 2016 HERO Forum. Jones said health coaches have heard comments from clients that a spouse’s healthy changes motivated them, or that they and their spouse are working together toward similar goals.

It works in the other direction, too.

Coaches report hearing that a spouse who is not supportive of change can deter an individual’s attempts, or that a spouse bringing unhealthy food into the home has “sabotaged” their attempts.
Getting a spouse on board with wellness efforts doesn’t just give employers an ally in increasing participation. It eliminates a potential roadblock.

Jones also found that individuals whose spouse or partner had high well-being scores had a one point greater improvement in well-being than those whose spouses had a low well-being score. Participants were also more likely to develop health risks such as obesity, stress, and reduced life satisfaction if their spouse had that same risk, and were less likely to eliminate those risks if the spouse shared them.

So, how can employers encourage involvement in health and well-being activities that will support their employees?

· Consider extending wellness benefits to spouses and families.
· Provide information that can help couples develop joint strategies for implementing a healthy diet.
· Provide well-being education in multiple formats that employees can easily share with spouses.
· Address joint barriers to engaging in healthy behaviors by giving spouses access to the same programs that are available to employees.
· Eliminate differences between partners in their ability to change their habits. Make sure they have the same access to healthy foods, and help both partners avoid situations that lead to unhealthy behaviors.

A spouse is more than just someone an employee goes home to at the end of the day. Their actions have a direct influence on the actions of the employee, their decisions affect the employee’s decisions and even their personality can play a role in how an employee performs at work. Including spouses in a well-being program can affect healthcare costs both directly — by reducing spouses’ disproportionate use of healthcare services — and indirectly. Ultimately, spouses and partners have an effect on the employee’s own participation in wellness programs, as well as the employee’s ability to do his or her job effectively.

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