Can workplace wellness make people healthy?

How effective employee wellness programs are depend greatly on how well a program is designed and aligned with workers’ needs and abilities to access what is offered, health experts agreed.

“It’s like any other product or service – some are excellent and some are lousy,” said Ron Z. Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and a vice president at IBM Watson Health.

For workplace wellness programs to be effective, companies need to look at their program “as a direct-to-consumer offering,” Goetzel said, with employers as their market.

If employees don’t buy the employer’s goal of helping them lead a healthier lifestyle and see how the program is going to help them personally, it’s not going to be effective, said Goetzel, who analyzed the results of a 2015 survey on workplace wellness programs conducted by the Transamerica Center for Health Students.

The survey’s takeaway: Most U.S. workplaces offer employee wellness programs and most employers believe that those programs are beneficial.

Employers said the programs resulted in good outcomes for employee health (83.6 percent), performance and productivity (83.3 percent) and health care costs (73.6 percent).

In fact, 13.3 percent of business respondents reported offering comprehensive wellness programs, a percentage well above the 6.9 percent reported when the last federally funded survey was released in 2008.

Over 70 percent offered health screening; roughly 64 percent offered health education; and nearly 64 percent provided supportive workplace environments.

Marketing a program

While about 80 percent of employers who responded to the Transamerica survey said they offered employee wellness programs, responses from about 1,800 workers in a separate random sample suggested that many employees are not aware or taking advantage of resources their employers offer.

Just 45 percent of workers said they were offered wellness programs at work, and of those, 54.7 percent said they participated.

There is some evidence that financial incentives can be effective to get people to participate, and sometimes to make healthy changes, such as stopping smoking.

But researchers are still looking for evidence of what works to get people to change lifelong habits such as poor diet and lack of exercise, Goetzel said.

Company leaders and managers can influence workers to lead healthier lifestyles by visibly participating in wellness programs.

Few companies, mostly large ones, calculate whether wellness programs earn a return on their investment. Some have claimed about $3 saved for $1 spent.

It is difficult to track return on investment in wellness programs, said Evren Esen, director of workforce analytics at the Society for Human Resource Management, a 285,000-member society for HR professionals.

Most of the benefit does not come right away and is best delivered by well-designed efforts that focus on “big-ticket” issues such as improving cardio-vascular health, reducing high blood pressure, avoiding cancer risks and better nutrition and exercise on a sustained basis, Esen said.

“Quick fix” and competitions do little to effect positive change, particularly if workplaces and their cultures don’t do enough to support good health, such as offering flex time, providing healthy foods in company cafeterias and vending machines, and prohibiting smoking on-site, Goetzel said.

Creating a “culture of health,” involving employees and incorporating what employees value in crafting a wellness program can help wellness programs succeed, he said.

That kind of engagement in a wellness program also helps worker productivity, retention and morale, Esen added.

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