While the cost of health care coverage is often the top concern of your business customers, there are still a large proportion of employers who are not utilizing some basic wellness strategies that may make a significant difference in creating a healthier workforce. A healthier workforce, to the mutual benefit of all stakeholders, is likely to incur fewer medical and disability costs and remain most productive, yet wellness programs are an area typically underutilized by employers.

While the number of employers offering wellness programs is growing – according to MetLife’s 8th annual Employee Benefits Trends Study, 37% of employers now offer a wellness program, up from 27% in 2005 – this means that nearly two-thirds of employers still do not have a wellness program in place. Smaller employers (those with fewer than 500 employees) are about one-third as likely to offer a wellness program than larger employers. If a monetary investment is the issue, there are several nominal costing tactics that can be taken to implement effective wellness programs.

Wellness Programs on a Shoestring
It does not take a big budget to implement a wellness program that can provide notable results. Employers of all sizes without much money to invest in wellness programs can still provide opportunities to encourage employees to take responsibility for their health – for a relatively low dollar commitment. Here are some simple suggestions:

Provide Access to Discounts. Many fitness clubs and gyms offer group discounts to employees. Employers can offer employees the opportunity to reduce stress, increase their energy and achieve weight-loss and overall fitness goals through discounted gym memberships.

Help Employees Control Weight. Like gym memberships, many weight-loss programs offer group discounts. Employees who strive to lose weight together may actually lose more weight than dieting on their own. Controlling weight can positively impact other costly conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Encourage Healthy Behaviors. One suggestion is to offer smoking cessation assistance at low or no cost or even simply changing the selections in vending machines or the cafeteria to healthier choices.

The Business Value of Wellness Programs
The success rates reported by employees regarding modifying their behavior as a result of participating in certain wellness programs are noteworthy. For example, according to the MetLife study, approximately nine out of ten people who participate in wellness programs say they have had success in losing weight and getting regular checkups. More than 80% of individuals say that they have increased their level of exercise, improved their diet and nutrition, or managed blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and stress. All of these things can obviously favorably impact not only an employees’ health and disability-related risks but also help control an employer’s costs in these areas.

Another way employers may benefit from offering wellness program is with increased employee productivity and benefits satisfaction. The MetLife study found that more than half (57%) of employees who participate in their companies’ health & wellness programs say they are very effective at impacting their productivity, and 71% who participate say they greatly value the benefit offering. This is a key statistic since the MetLife study also found a correlation between benefits satisfaction and job satisfaction. Consider this disparity of percentages — of employees highly satisfied with their benefits, 81% were also satisfied with their jobs, while of employees not satisfied with their benefits, only 23% said they were satisfied with their jobs.

Increasing Employee Participation

A growing number of employees say they are participating in their workplace wellness programs – likely due in part to an environment where they increasingly shoulder a greater proportion of the cost and responsibility for their health. In 2009, 57% of employees with access to a wellness program participated up from 46% just the year before. The reason why most employees participate? The majority (70%) of employees say it is the desire for good health that motivates them–an outcome that is mutually desired by employers.

Key to ensuring the success of any wellness program, however, is the need for effective communications. It is as simple as this: if employees aren’t aware of the benefits programs, they are not likely to be using them as they should. The MetLife study found that among employees with access to wellness programs, those who felt their benefits communications were effective were almost twice as likely to participate as those who didn’t.

It is not necessarily a matter of spending more money on communications, but rather a matter of more effectively leveraging available tools and tactics. Open enrollment season can be an ideal time to introduce a new program or provide more effective communications about existing programs. Employees, because they are making their health benefit decisions during open enrollment, are likely to also be receptive to receiving information on ways to maintain or improve their health – mitigating their own out-of-pocket financial exposure. One source for suggestions regarding effective benefits communications tactics as well as other tips for maximizing the success of open enrollment season is MetLife’s online Open Enrollment Toolbox at www.metlife.com/enrollment.

With employers looking to leverage their benefits programs to achieve multiple business objectives including controlling costs, improving employee retention and increasing employee productivity, providing access to wellness programs – and effectively communicating about them – can be a “win-win” for both your clients and their employees.

Dr. Ronald Leopold is vice president and national medical director of MetLife’s U.S. Business. Dr. Leopold is a board certified occupational medicine physician who holds a master’s in business administration as well as a master’s in public health. He is the author of two books, The Benefits Edge: Honing the Competitive Value of Employee Benefits, a business book on benefits designed to help employee benefits professionals develop benefits programs to give their companies a sustainable edge for the future, and A Year in the Life of One Million American Workers, an almanac of absence data that provides a comprehensive picture of one million American workers and their health conditions, illnesses and absence patterns. He can be reached at rleopold@metlife.com. A copy of MetLife’s 8th Annual Employee Benefits Trends Study, referenced in the article, can be obtained at www.metlife.com/trends2010.