Workplace Wellness Programs Require Team Effort

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The importance of a healthy workforce is hard to overstate.

Workers in good health are more productive during business hours and turn out higher quality work. There’s less absenteeism and morale tends to be higher.

Then, there are the economic reasons. Chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and arthritis account for 90% of the $3.3 trillion in annual health-care spending in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease alone results in $126 billion in lost productivity, while diabetes costs $245 billion. Arthritis, the CDC reported in October, has a national total of $140 billion in direct medical costs and another $164 billion in “indirect costs associated with lost earnings.”

“Seven out of 10 deaths are caused by chronic diseases,” says Kevin Ruse, director of health care and business development at the YMCA of Youngstown. “We’re an inactive bunch and there’s no real mystery to it. Everything that contributes to these chronic diseases are choices. You have the choice to smoke, the choice to drink, the choice to exercise, the choice to eat properly, the choice to sleep better.”

In September 2017, the YMCA launched its Workplace Wellness program, which includes discounted memberships and on-site programs for participating businesses. Among the offerings are biometric screenings, health and wellness challenges, health-education programming and on-site classes such as Zumba and line dancing.

“Some estimates indicate that fewer than 20% of employees engage in employer-based wellness programs,” Ruse says. “Our goal is to help employers go after the 80% that aren’t involved and bring them along.”

There is no catchall for what a corporate wellness plan should look like. The needs of each industry and company are entirely its own. Even within companies that are competing against one another, one employee base may value methods differently than the other.

“If employees aren’t interested, you’re getting involved in their personal life and for some, that may be too close. Even simple things like providing flu shots can be polarizing issues,” advises George Morris III, president of Morris Financial Group, Salem. “Before you jump into the deep end with a wellness plan, gauge your employees and find out if there’s interest and, if so, what they’re willing to do.”

Among the basic offerings for corporate wellness programs are biometric screenings, health education, reimbursements for gym memberships and health counseling.

“Employers need to consider their goals in offering a well-being program. That’s what ultimately determines what programs, resources and tools they should offer,” says Taylor Newlove-Chimes, manager of employer wellness solutions for Mercy Health. “Wellness programs vary by employer, but they’re designed to give employees tools, support and strategies to adopt and maintain healthy behaviors.”

Mercy Health frequently starts with biometric screenings, she continues, providing employers a snapshot of workers’ health.

“We’re looking at their height, weight and blood pressure and some lab markers as well as for things like cholesterol and blood sugar,” she says. From there, employers can identify the most pressing issues to address.

The YMCA also counsels employers on how to craft their wellness plans. Participating companies can take advantage of the Smart Start program, where employees meet for three sessions with wellness coaches and then work with personal trainers. Also available is a blood pressure self-monitoring program and a year-long diabetes-prevention program.

A third of Americans, Ruse says, are prediabetic. Of people who participate in the program, 58% do not advance to Type II diabetes, a figure that jumps to 71% for those over the age of 60, he says.

To help businesses begin their own programs, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation offers the Workplace Wellness Grant Program. Open to state-funded employers that maintain active coverage and are current on BWC payments, the program offers $300 per employee over four years to launch a wellness program.

The program has two requirements of employers, says Dr. Abe Al-Tarawneh, superintendent of the division of safety and hygiene at BWC. First, businesses must offer annual biometric testing and health-risk assessments.

“We also encourage employers to invest in – and this is usually a function of the vendor they work with – good, reliable, credible education materials for their employees about healthy living, exercise, physical activity and nutrition,” he says.

Many large companies – those with 500 or more employees – have the funds and resources to develop, launch and maintain workplace wellness campaigns, Al-Tarawneh says. The focus of the agency is getting small employers up to speed as well.

“They’re more common these days than they used to be and we think they’re going to become more common. They’ve been evolving … but what’s evolved in these last few years are the resources that are there,” he says. “The struggle is as you go to smaller employers, where the investment or resources may not be available for them to do large programs. They won’t see a quick return on investment, which is why we have these Workplace Wellness grants.”

Funds can cover exercise classes, educational materials, disease-prevention training, biometric screenings, weight-loss challenges and more, according to the website of the program. Promotional items such as T-shirts and water bottles, as well as exercise equipment, are barred.

While there’s no direct discount for BWC payments, Al-Tarawneh says the development of courses could have an effect on workers’ compensation rates down the road.

“We’re entering a new phase of the workforce in the United States and Ohio with more older workers, more workers with chronic conditions and more who have obesity,” he says. “Unless we start doing things now … these challenges will be translated to higher costs in workers’ compensation.”

Similarly, Morris notes, few insurance plans offer direct savings from workplace wellness plans, although there are exceptions for self-insured plans.

“That’s where you’re sharing in the claims, so as your programs result in a healthier workforce, you directly save money,” he says. “The immediate payback takes two or three years and that’s what can be, at times, frustrating. Conceptually, wellness makes a lot of sense beyond dollars and cents.”

Once a program is in place, the follow-through is what can make or break a program. It’s one thing to make the tools available. It’s another to get people to use them.

“We work with employers to develop an engagement and activation strategy to get employees engaged in the program,” Newlove-Chimes says of Mercy Health programs. “That could be anything from marketing and communication materials to bringing programs on-site.”

Mercy offers an online portal for wellness challenges, as well as management services.

One of the best approaches, Morris adds, is to ensure that the whole company is involved, especially if a wellness plan is aimed to completely revamp a company culture.

“It helps when the executive suite, the owners and management all live it. It helps if they’re fit and active. It helps if they don’t smoke. It helps if they exercise regularly. It’s a company commitment, top to bottom,” Morris says.

Wellness challenges such as those offered by the YMCA can offer employees continuing motivation.

“A lot of people don’t exercise because they’re afraid of it or intimidated by it or they’re embarrassed by it,” Ruse says. “We offer these challenges for people to gain confidence that they can be more active and healthy.”

And prizes such as gift cards can give them a stake in the competition.

“It should be to someplace like Dick’s [Sporting Goods],” Morris notes. “It’s not going to be a $50 card to Gorant’s. It’s going to be something that reinforces the activity employers want to see.”

While corporate wellness plans are often well-intentioned, there should be some caution, especially when it comes to privacy. Not all employees want employers to know their health information and for wellness programs as part of self-insured plans, employers must be sure to not violate HIPAA regulations regarding the disclosure of private information.

“The delicate, tough thing with this is that while they may be grateful for their employer’s interest, they can be skeptical and worried about their privacy, either related to their peers or future employment,” Morris says.

For companies that successfully implement wellness programs, the benefits are nothing to sniff at. Mercy Health offers access to on-site fitness centers, health screenings and even walking paths at campuses across its system. The results: a 17% reduction in the average number of health risks, Newlove-Chimes says, as well as awards from the Wellness Council of America, the American Heart Association and being recognized as one of the Top 100 Healthiest Workplaces in America.

Nationwide, she continues, wellness programs are gaining a foothold. A recent survey by Fidelity Health and the National Business Group on Health found two-thirds of respondents with wellness programs plan to expand them within the next five years.

“The variety of programs offered is growing. Not only are they focusing on fitness and health, but they’re looking at offering resources and support for emotional and mental health, condition management and financial well-being,” she says. “This space is continuing to grow.”

Pictured: Jesse Freeman works out at the YMCA Central Branch. The YMCA offers Workplace Wellness programs.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.