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EMPLOYEE BENEFITS

Why your medical practice should implement an employee wellness program—and how to do it

Employee wellness programs are gaining in popularity, and with good reason. Research shows that wellness programs have many advantages, for employers and employees alike.

Indeed, given the advantages, all businesses should focus on employee wellness, including, and perhaps, especially medical practices—because you are in the business of healthier living.

But there is confusion surrounding these programs. How does your practice decide what kind of wellness program to offer? Then, how do you implement the program? And how do you measure results?

To help you better understand employee wellness programs, Medical Office Manager asked Jennifer Arnold, MS, RD/LDN, owner of Redesigning Wellness, a worksite wellness consulting firm, to share her knowledge and insight. Here’s what she told us.

MOM: Various organizations and studies support the use of workplace wellness programs, citing that they have been shown to reduce employee absenteeism, increase productivity, and lower health care costs. Nevertheless, not all employers have implemented such programs. Are there misconceptions about these programs? And, if so, what are the most common misconceptions?

JA: According to a Employee benefits research report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 70 percent of U.S. employers currently offer a general wellness program. An additional 8 percent of organizations have plans to offer a general wellness package in the next 12 months.

These stats tell me that the majority of employers are offering wellness programs but when I work with employers, there are still plenty that aren’t implementing them.

Two things that employers commonly lack is the time for a staff member (typically HR) to implement one and simply not knowing where to start. Another reason is that the top leader doesn’t believe in wellness, therefore it doesn’t get off the ground.

The biggest misconception I see is that employers will do a few programs here and there and expect results like the ones you listed above. In order to see good results from a wellness program an employer needs to decide what they are trying to accomplish, offer programming to meet that goal, and measure results. This sounds simple and obvious but so many employers just start offering activities without a plan.

Another misconception is that seeing results from wellness will happen in year one. Wellness takes time and many employers don’t want to wait the three to five years required to see hard numbers. They skip the most important step and initial measurement – engaging employees. Without first getting employees excited and having input on your wellness program, results are never going to happen. You’ve got to walk before you run.

MOM: In order to fund workplace wellness programs, some employers divide the overall “health care pie” differently. For example, they may require employees to contribute more to health insurance in order to reduce company expense, and then allocate those dollars for wellness. In your experience, how widespread is this kind of practice?

JA: Let me answer this in two parts. I often see employers offering a premium contribution for employees to complete wellness activities. Let’s say that an employer pays 80 percent of their employees’ health insurance. They may say that to continue to pay the 80 percent, their employees will have to complete wellness activities. So, the employer puts their standard premium contribution at risk.

Instead of the extra money being spent on wellness, more often than not it just gets put back into the general insurance budget.

I don’t recommend the premium contribution approach for a few reasons. One is that you’ll get participation but it’s just compliance, not engagement. In other words, employees will do what you ask of them but just to get the money they risk losing. That’s not how behavior change happens.

Secondly, I’ve seen employers feel like they need to keep adding extra activities each year to earn the same (or higher) premium credit. More activities mean more hoops for employees to jump through and more activities for someone to track.

If you want to ignore my advice and put your premium contribution at risk, I encourage you to not label it wellness. Call it a health insurance credit so employees understand it’s a way to cost share medical insurance costs. If you keep it labeled as wellness, employees then associate wellness with activities they don’t really want to do but have to because of the risk of losing money.

MOM: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wellness programs also lower health insurance rates. Is this largely through wellness program incentives offered as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)?

JA: I’m not aware of the CDC claim that wellness programs lower health insurance rates. At a high level, if you have a healthier population then your insurance rates will be lower than an unhealthy population. Makes sense, right?

Unfortunately, another misconception employers make is that health insurance claims and rates will lower dramatically with any wellness effort. You can have the healthiest population but then a preemie is born, someone gets in a serious car accident or maybe another gets cancer. These high cost claims can happen to even the healthiest group.

I do believe effective wellness programs reduce health risks and can lower claims five years down the line. But an employer can’t predict some high cost claimants that will increase insurance rates.

MOM: How would you recommend a small to midsize employer, like a medical practice, research and implement a wellness program?

JA: Although small and midsized employers are often limited with staffing and time, it can be easier to start a culture of wellness because there are fewer employees and management layers.

Assuming the company or practice leader supports wellness, then I would start with them communicating why wellness is important to him/her and the company. That helps set the tone for employees and all it takes is a few communications.

Secondly, I would focus on the environment. Are employees sitting all day or are they constantly moving around? If it’s the former, then get a few sit to stand desks to allow them to stand. This increases their metabolism and engages their brain more than sitting.

What’s the food like? Is junk food and sugary drinks constantly around for people to eat? Bring in fruit to have around the office, and for all employee events make sure healthy food and drinks are available.

Do people get breaks? This doesn’t just mean structured breaks required by law but mini-breaks during the day. Even if it’s just for one minute, recovery breaks are important to keeping employees engaged and creative at work. Engaged employees are more likely to take better care of patients and customers.

To help employers, I have a list of 67 wellness ideas at my website that employers can download for free.

MOM: Are certain types of wellness programs more popular than others?

JA: Most employers are offering nutrition and exercise activities along with incentives. Some of them are asking their employees to take a health assessment or go through biometric screenings for a premium contribution.

Many employers I speak to are looking for more of a holistic approach. Mental and emotional health is important to well-being and although employers recognize that, they don’t always implement it.

MOM: Should a company’s wellness program be tailored to its specific employee population? Are there any risks in doing this?

1,000 percent yes! A wellness program doesn’t work unless it offers opportunities that relate to different types of employees. Think about engaging a physician the same as you would a front desk staff employee. They have two different day-to-day jobs not to mention salaries. Same goes for different age groups and where they are on the wellness spectrum.

A generic, one size fits all approach to wellness doesn’t work. A tip to tailor your programming is to find out what your employees want from wellness by department or job function. Scan their environments to see what barriers to health exist and eliminate the barriers. If you have a company-wide health challenge, give employees the ability to find an activity that fits them instead of having rigid rules that apply to all.

The advantage of worksite wellness is you have a captive audience who at least has one thing in common…their employer. The people we work with influence our behavior, so it’s important that employers start the conversation around health. That gives employees the opportunity to set health goals and partner up to keep each other accountable.

MOM: Finally, what is the number one piece of advice you would offer a company of any size that hasn’t yet embraced employee wellness?

JA: I’m not really in the business of convincing employers to embrace wellness. I believe it needs to come from the employer for wellness to really work.

That being said, health care costs aren’t going down and as a population, we aren’t getting any healthier. If an employer does nothing to make it easier for employees to practice healthy behaviors at work, they shouldn’t be surprised when their health care costs go up.

Ultimately, a company is only as strong as its employees. If an employer doesn’t take an interest in their employees’ health and happiness, employees can become disengaged, unhealthy, and unproductive employees.


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