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Secrets to Success in Wellness Programs

Wise executives recognize that while employees are most definitely human beings, they also are machines of production that require maintenance.   According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, preventable illnesses and medical conditions comprise approximately 90% of United States $1.4 trillion medical care costs. A recent NASA study found that people who exercise have twice the stamina and productivity in the last two hours of the day than their more sedentary colleagues.  Data from one carrier show that members engaged in its wellness program experienced a 15% drop in claims over a three-year period and that by Year 3, companies with 5,000 employees or more record direct medical savings averaging $2.5 million.

A growing number of American businesses are responding by offering wellness programs, which always are a good idea, but which, because of three missing ingredients, often do not live up to expectations. 

One of those ingredients is leadership -- buy-in at the top. People don't like being told what to do, but most will follow the example of enthusiastic leaders who set and personally live up to high expectations. That fact was supported by a business owner I know. In a newsletter article about his company's wellness program, he wrote: "Quality, attendance and overall employee morale are up, which has a direct impact on the satisfaction of our customer..., but what I want to drive home is that it didn't happen by magic. In order for it to work, it takes commitment and dedication from the company's leadership team and that has been the key to our success."

The second ingredient is incentive. Wellness programs fail because, for most people, the rewards of exercise, losing weight and other healthy activities come so slowly. Companies with successful wellness programs have used incentives, in effect, to pay people to do the right thing. Programs have offered airline miles, vacation and merchandise rewards for healthy behaviors such as daily exercise, seeking preventive care, improving one's Body Mass Index, and lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels. One strong wellness program found a difference of up to 60% in preventive-care usage measured between members participating in such a wellness program and those who do not. This is a consequence, not only of the incentive structure of this program, but also of a drive to encourage preventive care through education.

The third and possibly the most promising ingredient in a successful wellness program is a healthy workplace; specifically changing the way people work to include wellness habits as part of the workday. Won't that mean people will have less time to work, leading to more stress and pressure? An emphatic NO! Workplace wellness is all about encouraging healthy habits so that employees return home each day healthier than when they left home that morning.

Here are some examples of painless steps companies can and have taken to cut healthcare costs by encouraging healthy behaviors:

* For breakfast meetings, replace those donuts and sweet rolls with bagels and fresh fruit. 

* Arrange for cafeteria or food vendors to offer healthy food choices. People like convenience, so if the vending machines offer fruit bars and bottled water, meaning employees have to leave the building to buy their Snickers Bars and Coke, you'll be surprised how many bad habits are changed. 

* Plan events and group activities that encourage employees to become active, such as stretch breaks, challenge events and contests. Some companies encourage "walking meetings." One replaced the expensive chairs in its meeting room with $20 exercise balls. The CEO notes that it impossible to sit on one of those without good posture. As a result, meetings are shorter and, as a bonus, employees emerge with stronger abs! 

* Offer on-site health professionals. When Destiny Health offered a yoga class, 30% of the company's employees signed up and late-day productivity rose. 

* Provide a supportive environment that makes healthy choices easy: bike racks, shower facilities, clean, safe and accessible stairwells. 

* Launch a pedometer program. Americans on average walk only 5,000 steps per day. Our data show that wearing a pedometer encourages people to increase that activity by an average of 3,000 steps.

Can American business reduce their healthcare costs? The answer is yes, but it takes leadership, incentives and a workplace where healthy behavior is encouraged.  The costs are small and the potential ROI is huge.  

Adapted from article by Andrew Sykes, Chief Wellness Officer, Destiny Health

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