Workplace Wellness Can Deliver a Healthy ROI

Author: 
Paul Nolan

The mission of Atlanta-based Hodges-Mace, LLC, is to help its client companies communicate clearly the full details about their employee benefits package so workers can get the most out of them. It stands to reason, then, that Hodges-Mace pays careful attention to its own employee benefits package.

The company, which has been named one of the best places to work in Georgia by Georgia Trend Magazine, incorporates education, contests and incentives into its benefits program, adopting a holistic approach to helping workers be happier and healthier.

As executive assistant Kristina Charnecki explains, Hodges-Mace’s “Smarter Choices” program for its employees focuses on enhancing not only workers’ physical well-being, but their financial health as well as a sense of belonging to the greater community through volunteer opportunities.

The company sponsors themed competitions throughout the year in which employees set their own health-oriented goals and earn the right to enter drawings for $50 and $100 gift cards.

“When employees feel valued, they have a better understanding of their company and why they want to work for that company,” Charnecki says. “These benefits feed into our culture and show that we are a caring company.”

A wave of wellness

An increasing number of companies are looking to play a larger role in their employees’ overall health. According to a 2015 RAND report, 69% of employers with 50 or more employees offer a wellness program. The motivation is not purely altruistic. Numerous studies report the return on investment for employers is significant and clear.

Gallup reports that workers who are thriving in all five elements of well-being (purpose, social, financial, community and physical) miss less work, have higher customer ratings, solve problems more readily and adapt to change more quickly than employees who are only thriving in one element. Employees with high well-being in all five elements also save their companies money in healthcare costs and turnover, being 81% less likely to seek out a new employer in the next year compared with adults who are only thriving in their physical well-being.

Researchers in one study monitored workers at five commercial laundry plants, including one plant that served as a natural control group since it didn’t implement the wellness program. Workers were offered free health assessments, including a blood sample tested for conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol. They also filled out surveys about habits such as exercise, smoking and diet. Ultimately, 111 workers met the criteria to be included in the study.

The laundry company’s total cost for the wellness program was around $32,640, and the authors estimated the total productivity benefit at $57,558, for a return on investment of more than 76%. In other words, for every $100 it spent on the wellness program, the firm earned $176 in output from its employees.

Creating plans that work

“The great news is that workplace wellness —  done well — can positively impact work performance and lead to positive individual change around well-being. In essence, workplace wellness ‘that works’ is essential for building a high-performing team, good for the bottom line and good for people,” says Laura Putnam, founder and CEO of Motion Infusion, a workplace wellness consulting firm, and the author of “Workplace Wellness That Works.”

The not-so-good news is that many employers struggle to get workers to engage with well-being programs and stay active in them. One study found that less than half of eligible employees participate in their plan’s initial assessment phase, and the participation rate drops to less than 20% when programs actually kick in.

“Just having a wellness program is not enough, and having an ill-conceived wellness program is often worse than not having one at all,” Putnam states. She offers these factors as important to achieving desired goals with wellness programs:

  • Leadership engagement on all levels – All levels of leadership, from executives to middle management to informal leaders within the organization, need to be not only supporting — they need to be actively participating.
  • Alignment – Workplace wellness strategies must be aligned with the organizational core mission and values, objectives, operations and cultural norms.
  • Opportunities for engagement – Employees need to feel like there are opportunities to engage — in terms of time, accessibility and perceived sense of permission.
  • Communication – Strong communication can serve as a powerful motivator.
  • Continuous evaluation – Engaging in ongoing assessments in an effort to improve can lead to higher levels of success.
  • Quality of programming – Resources must be spent on creating top-notch initiatives that people want to engage with — not something they feel obligated to participate in.

Defining what success looks like

Bob Layne, CEO of Propel, a provider of customized online portals for education, communication and administration of wellness programs, says clients understand you cannot merely announce a well-being program and expect employees to engage. “You are essentially going to market with your employee population. We start with a strategic discussion, asking our clients, ‘When we’re talking about the program a year from now, what does success look like to you?’ We can provide success metrics, but every organization is different, so we want to help our clients define what success is and build the program to achieve that outcome.”

The portals that Propel develops are customized for each client. Technology is vital for providing communication and maintaining engagement. Gamification is another important part of most well-being programs that Propel develops.

Hodges-Mace, a Propel client, has 266 employees, 200 of whom actively participate in the company’s well-being program — a 75% participation rate. Charnecki says when the company initially launched its program without Propel, it quickly discovered that generating engagement and participation was a challenge. The online platform that Propel brought to the table for tracking each participant’s success and managing rewards proved to be the difference-maker. Participants can record their steps, miles jogged, hours slept or any other healthy activity they are monitoring via a smart phone, smart watch, tablet or other device.

The holistic approach

Logging steps, miles or other types of physical exertion is great, but it’s important to remember that well-being is more than physical fitness. According to the Integrated Benefits Institute, “presenteeism,” which is wellness jargon describing people showing up at the office, but not really being present, costs U.S. employers $530 billion annually alone.

High levels of presenteeism translate into reduced performance at work, resulting in enormous productivity loss. Those who are suffering from depression or other forms of mental illness are averaging 25.6 missed days a year, according to a study led by Ron Goetzel, a senior scientist and director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies.

Stress reduction has become a common objective of workplace well-being efforts. Whether an employee’s stress is work-related or caused by something other than work, it behooves an employer to help stressed workers rectify their situation.

Laurie Sharp-Page, a Cincinnati-based licensed psychotherapist, launched her company Sprouting Change early this year to help companies take a preventative approach to fostering mental health through education. Sprouting Change clients
host workshops for their workers on topics such as preventing burnout, improving emotional intelligence (EQ) and handling high-conflict office environments. Although its current clients are mostly local, Sprouting Change sessions can be streamed to a client company anywhere in the world.

“Our idea is that everybody brings their brain to work,” she says. “We know more about the brain than we’ve ever known, but we still don’t know a lot. We feel it’s important to educate people about how their brain works.”

Adds Putnam, “For too long, many organizations have fooled themselves into thinking that employees can ‘check their emotions at the door.’ This ignores one fundamental tenet: To be human is to be emotional. For any culture to flourish, an organization must pay attention to feelings.”

Using incentives wisely

Wellness programs have long used incentives to generate participation with mixed results. Sustainable change must be the result of intrinsic motivation, says Putnam. Workers must be empowered to identify their “whys.” Numerous studies have shown that money is not as motivating as some hope it will be, whether it is offered to drive workplace performance or change life behaviors.

Gift cards have long been a popular incentive used in wellness programs. Deb Merkin, CEO of GiftCard Partners, says gift cards for $30 or more are commonly used to reward program participants who adopt and stick with healthy lifestyle habits.

“It’s important to reward an action until it becomes a habit. Research I’ve read states that can take anywhere from six to 24 months,” Merkin says. And just as with sales incentive programs, non-cash rewards used in wellness programs are more memorable than cash. Often, recipients will share their reward with their family.

The linchpin for success

Engaged managers at all levels are the linchpin of successful wellness efforts. “Managers are the ones who are best positioned to act as multipliers, or catalysts, to move a population toward enhanced health and well-being,” Putnam says. “When they take on this role, studies have shown that both managers and their team members report increased engagement with work, enhanced well-being, and improved productivity.”

“Expecting any program to be effective without demonstrating management support is the number one mistake that most organizations make. People pay attention to what leaders pay attention to,” adds Propel’s Layne. “We always seek to get involvement. Sales and marketing departments usually have a visible presence in an organization. Getting them involved as champions in the program can be a huge benefit for an organization in terms of getting a program integrated into its culture.”

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