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Because employees are the most valuable asset to any company, almost 90 percent of employers now offer some type of wellness program that includes incentives; whether they be financial rewards or prizes to employees who work toward leading a healthier lifestyle. That is up from 57% of companies back in 2009.  The premise of such programs is that healthier employees tend to be happier and more productive employees. This often presents itself in the form of better performing workers and lower absenteeism and healthcare costs.

Programs can range drastically, from simply offering information to workers, to sponsoring healthy lunches, fitness education and company gyms.  Research has shown that creating a healthy culture and work environment is a fundamental best practice for increasing employee engagement in healthy behaviors and health improvement.

Experts say that personalizing wellness programs boosts participation among those who will benefit the most and a program that provides a tempting path to follow will have more success keeping people involved.

Some employers are reluctant to implement wellness programs and link participation to premiums because of a perceived privacy issue.  The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) generally prevents group health plans or issuers from charging one individual a higher premium than another based on a health condition.  However, HIPAA does allow a specific exemption for premium discounts or rebates “in return for adherence to programs of health promotion and disease prevention.”

Simple activities are a good way to introduce employees to healthy behavior change.  Employees tend to enjoy the freedom to choose their health activities, from bike rides to self-defense classes, rather than having to talk to a nurse or participate in an official program to receive a reward.  Experts say that personalizing wellness programs boosts participation among those who will benefit the most and a program that provides a tempting path to follow will have more success keeping people involved. On the flip side, informing employees about their health risks and giving them advice won’t necessarily lead them to take action.  Too many options can overwhelm employees and companies can waste money on programs that won’t effectively address workers’ biggest health problems.  Rewarding employees for simply showing up to a wellness program doesn’t mean they will actually get healthier.  And some workers feel personalized interventions are intrusive and compromise privacy.

A sound designed wellness program includes the following components:

  • Leadership support (top leaders in the company endorse and support the program)
  • A champion or ambassador to promote the program; often this is a person who has successfully overcome an unhealthy lifestyle or behavior themselves and can speak from experience
  • A healthy and safe physical environment

  • Healthy food options, walking paths, fitness center access, etc.
  • A wellness committee, including volunteers, from across the organization who can help with wellness events
  • Written policies (ex. tobacco free) that reinforce the above practices
  • Medical benefits with a health designed component (examples include coverage and access is offered or available for preventive services; acute and chronic health care services for all individuals; 24/7 access to nurse hotline; coverage of preventive care; and resources for health risk management)

In the end, wellness initiatives are achieved by taking a realistic, integrated approach.  The goal should be reduce corporate healthcare expenditures and improve employee quality of life by delivering a healthy workplace. Tremendous cost savings are realized over time when employees are able to maintain a status of low to medium health risk as long as possible over the course of their lifetime. For those who do live with a chronic condition, significant savings are realized when employees are provided with education, inspiration and skills to manage their conditions.  Employee Wellness Programs with built-in incentives have a proven return on investment.