Wellness programs sound great, but do they actually help employees improve their health?

The traditional programs do some good, but now there’s a new option: tailored behavior change programs.

Tailored behavior change programs use a combination of technology and behavioral science research to develop personalized wellness plans.

Employers’ mileage may vary, but early returns suggest that the tailored programs get much better results than the old, off-the-rack programs.

One-Size-Fits-All

Traditional wellness programs use tools such as counseling, brochures and incentive programs to help employees tackle problems such as smoking, stress, poor nutrition and obesity. All of these tools have advantages and disadvantages.

  • Counseling: Telecounseling, individual counseling and group counseling provide personal interaction. They can be an effective tool for changing unhealthy behaviors.
    But counseling is also expensive and time-consuming. Employers might be able to offer counseling to just a handful of employees, and some busy employees won?t be willing or able to participate. Some employees who do participate might have trouble maintaining their motivation and confidence levels once contact with the counselor ends. And some employees might feel uncomfortable about “spilling their guts” to counselors.
  • Brochures: Printing a brochure or posting it online is an inexpensive way to reach a large number of employees. But knowledge does not equal behavioral change, and generic materials may fail to address employees’ specific needs. A generic brochure might give great advice to overweight employees about exercising more and eating less, but it might not talk about why Sam Smith eats half a gallon of ice cream every night or how Laura Lane, a single mom with 3 sons, can find the time to exercise.
  • Incentive programs: Cash bonuses and point systems can give people extra motivation to make healthy lifestyle changes. A successful program is usually worth the expense. But participants might lose their motivation when a poorly designed incentive program ends, and employers dislike the cost of paying for ineffective incentive programs.

Visit The Tailor

A good tailored behavior change program can overcome many of the obstacles that traditional programs face by addressing employees’ needs with personalized coaching delivered through the Web or the post office. A typical tailored program starts with an employee survey. The program uses the answers to generate a personalized wellness program that tailors everything from visuals to sentence structure to meet each employee’s individual needs.

Highmark Inc., Pittsburgh, a large health insurer, began offering a tailored program to its employees because participation was convenient and employees in satellite offices around the country could participate as easily as employees on the main campuses.

The participation rate was twice what wellness program managers had expected, and the company decided to offer the program for free to its 4.3 million health plan members.

Some of the results for Highmark employees:

  • 71% of the participants who wanted to lose weight lost weight.
  • 94% of the participants improved their eating habits.
  • 83% improved their stress management skills.
  • 30% of the smokers who participated stopped smoking.

Amy McKenna is manager of employer and managed care health initiatives at HealthMedia Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich. Tina Palaggo-Toy, M.S., CHES, is director of worksite preventive health at Highmark Inc., Pittsburgh.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, October 14, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.