Today’s always-connected society means employees are no longer able to turn the computer off at 5 p.m. With the recent shift to remote work further blurring the line between work and home, our 24-7 work culture places a greater onus on employers to support and contribute to the health and well-being of their workers.
Workplace wellness programs are a popular tool to help people engage in their own health, aimed at improving employee health and productivity, and decreasing healthcare costs. But employers have become increasingly skeptical of their return on investment because, as reported in a 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, these programs do not create a significant effect on health care costs.
It’s time for organizations to take a closer look at the benefits of workplace wellness programs to better meet their employees’ needs.
To make the business case to invest more in employee health, it’s important to have a holistic view of wellness — going beyond physical fitness and even disease management, to address factors impacting individuals’ comprehensive health. By reviewing and revising their wellness programs, business leaders also might find that they can increase their financial return on investment by lowering health costs and improving health outcomes.
Six key factors make employer wellness programs more effective.
1. Go beyond benefits for physical health.
Employees’ wellness includes both physical and mental health. Depression and stress, in particular, have proved to be major sources of lost productivity — and these are of special concern in the midst of a global pandemic. Think beyond diet and exercise. Providing financial incentives to join fitness clubs or stocking your kitchen with healthy snacks isn’t enough — successful programs help participants find the support they need for their emotional well-being as well.
2. Provide one-stop support for complex, chronic conditions.
Another important component of wellness programs is the management of chronic conditions — and, a design that doesn’t separate a single condition from participants’ overall health. More than 83 million Americans are managing two or more chronic conditions that require frequent and recurring health care. A Rand study found that disease management drives a large part of the savings that employee wellness programs generate. Yet many disease management programs focus on a single condition — ignoring the interconnectedness of our health, and the large number of Americans who manage two or more chronic conditions.
3. Personalize guidance for individual health needs.
Companies are targeting their marketing and advertising with more precision than ever. The same should be done with their health and wellness benefits in a privacy-compliant way. The quickest way to turn off employees is to treat everyone the same. Companies can design wellness programs that engage specific employees for tailored support. Personalized health guidance on medication, nutrition, fitness, diet, and other factors impacting wellness like sleep and mental health are proven to make a difference in individual outcomes, and in employers’ claims costs.
4. Use data-driven decision making during selection.
Today’s analytics and AI technology can take the guesswork out of determining who needs help or what types of chronic conditions to manage — so that employers don’t have to rely on employees to self-identify areas where they need support. Employers can collaborate with their health plans to analyze medical claims and other data to help design benefits. It’s also important to look beyond the commonly-known conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
Research shows there is a cohort of employees who are accessing the healthcare system at a high rate but aren’t getting healthier. They’re not easily identified by social determinants of health, and can’t be defined by one single socioeconomic, geographic or ethnic demographic. And they don’t share a single common condition — though most are managing at least one chronic condition. Once companies identify those with the greatest need, then they can decide how to allocate resources.
5. Complement existing care guidance.
In the face of an increasingly strained health care system, employees are looking for more individualized support. That could be services that provide access to physical therapy, psychologists, counselors and a host of alternative medical treatments. Employees with chronic conditions may need help taking better care of themselves. Managing multiple medications and health conditions can be overwhelming and exhausting – financially, physically and emotionally. One-on-one support can provide everything from reminders on how to take prescribed medications to motivation to stick with their exercise regimen.
6. Leverage technology to mitigate access barriers.
In an age when consumers can get anything they need delivered to their doorsteps within two days, they have developed similar expectations for their healthcare. People want care when and where they need it. To provide support and achieve high participation rates, wellness programs must provide solutions that fit with employees’ on-the-go lifestyles — including multiple ways to connect. Whether via video chat, text, phone or otherwise, the key is making that connection easy and natural.
Ultimately, the goal of any wellness plan is to empower people to lead happier, healthier lives — enabling them to do the things they enjoy, and to contribute to their families, jobs and communities. It’s time to design benefits that take a fresh approach to well-being, while also reducing costs for individuals and employers and increasing productivity.
Eric Hamborg is co-founder and chief commercial officer of MOBE, a company that provides individual guides for health plan enrollees with chronic health problems.