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Employers offer wellness programs and hope for cost savings

BOISE, Id. – Heidi Martin travels the Treasure Valley regularly to administer a wellness program for Saint Alphonsus Health System workers in the Treasure Valley. Martin assists with blood draws, the gathering of data such as height, weight and blood pressure, and with providing nutrition and other coaching services.

Martin is one of many workers around country focused on improving employee health with the hope of raising attendance, cutting absenteeism, and enhancing quality of life.

A 2013 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report found that three-quarters of private businesses in the nation offer at least one wellness program. The report said 24 percent offer health risk assessments and 57 percent offer at least one disease management program.

U.S. companies spent $3 billion on wellness programs last year, said Brian Berchtold, vice president of sales and marketing for a Portland, Ore. company called Hubbub Health that provides an online wellness platform for employers. The market has grown about 5 percent in the last 5 years, and is expected to grow 10 percent over the next 5 years, Berchtold said. That includes everything from annual flu shots for employees to on-site gyms.

There’s some evidence that wellness programs can help improve performance and cut problems such as absenteeism. Companies that provide wellness services promote surveys showing that wellness programs for workers increase employee retention and health insurance costs. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, using 2003 research, said wellness programs cut health care costs by 26 percent. The department said businesses with worksite wellness programs report a 28 percent reduction in sick leave absenteeism.

But it’s difficult to know the long-term effects, because there’s no industry standard for measuring the impact of wellness programs. And insurance premiums are based on so many different variables that it’s very hard to correlate them with recent improvements brought about by wellness programs, said Suzie Owen, a wellness consultant for the PacificSource health insurance company in Boise.

Instead, “we try to promote VOI, or Value of Investment,” Owen said. “That’s the value of demonstrating that healthy people are more productive at work, have less absenteeism, and are more apt to do the job well because their employer has invested in them.”

Saint Alphonsus offers a wellness program to all of its 4,600 employees. The health system has a wellness team with four full-time employees, including two registered dieticians, a registered nurse and a manager. The health system has been offering wellness programs to outside organizations and businesses for more than 10 years, said spokesman Josh Schlaich. Saint Alphonsus re-launched its internal wellness program about six months ago. Schlaich said it’s too early to know how much the program will cost or save.

Because the program is so new, “we have not yet reached the point that we’re able to calculate specific internal success metrics (price-per-colleague, ROI, etc.),” Schlaich said.

Saint Alphonsus offers a variety of benefits, including onsite consultations with a dietician or a nurse; weight management support groups, tobacco cessation programs, physical activity opportunities and on-site athletic equipment. One such offering is its Lifesteps program- a 16-week one-hour-per-week nutrition management class.

Martin said workers are more likely to use onsite gym equipment than to use a gym membership provided by their employer. The onsite gym has a few elliptical machines, treadmills, free weights etc.

“It’s mainly about accessibility,” Martin said. “I have a gym membership but I work a lot of long days and long shifts at the hospital and having something onsite to access makes it more likely that I will work out, simply because of the pure convenience of it.”

Participation in wellness programs increases when employees receive incentives, such as money, according to research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Cash incentives for health risk assessments are most common and are offered by about 30 percent of employers that offer those programs. Cash incentives of at least $50 are most effective, the HHS said.

The City of Nampa offers an incentivized wellness program that includes annual examinations, nutrition and fitness classes, and training in cardiovascular conditioning, muscular strength and flexibility. The program was introduced to lower the city’s medical costs and increase productivity.

Tina Combs, the city’s assistant director of human resources, said almost half the city’s 500 employees take part in the fitness portion of the program by exercising at an approved fitness center or participating in a city-sponsored group fitness class. Employees then submit the dates they worked out. A full time city employee can earn up to $795 per year through the wellness program.

“This year alone we are already up to 160 employees (out of 500) participating in the wellness portion,” Combs said. But he said it’s hard to tell if the city is seeing reduced expenses in return.

“We’ve seen some reduction in claims. But, this is a hard one to measure,” Combs said. But he said he’s seen productivity rise.

“The employees have actually been taking their breaks and going on walks, production has gone up,” he said. “We have an overall happier and healthier employee. The productivity and presenteeism really makes the program worth it.”

Not a long-term investment

It’s no longer appropriate to look at wellness as a long-term investment, because workers change jobs more frequently nowadays, Berchtold said. Instead, he said, business leaders have spoken to him of seeing wellness programs change culture and behaviors.

“This one particular organization gave the example of how it became socially unacceptable to walk into the office after lunch with a bag of junk food or drive-through food,” he said. “It almost becomes socially unacceptable to walk around the office with a Big Gulp.”

Hubbub’s programs have employees do things like “eat something orange” or “eat something green.” Then, the employee can post a photo of their lunchtime salad to the platform to show they’re engaged with the program.

For business leaders considering a wellness program, Berchtold suggested that instead of measuring changes in dollars, employers measure changes in metrics such as pounds lost, minutes of exercise added, or stairs climbed.

“It’s more about common sense,” he said. “If my employees are engaged in healthy activities, they’re going to show up more often, they’re going to be present, and the morale of the total organization is going to improve.”