With Rising Health Care Costs, Employers Turn to Wellness Programs
Subscribe today for Free Enterprise Updates
- Latest business trends and best practices
- News about legislation and regulation impacting business
- Business how-to articles from industry experts
- Commentary and interviews with newsmakers in business and politics
Since 2001, average premiums for family health insurance coverage have increased 113%, with workers paying for a growing share of the costs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust.
Increasingly, employers are turning to employee health and wellness programs with an eye toward curbing costs. According to the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center, a firm can save $350 per year on a low-risk employee who remains healthy and $153 on a high-risk employee who properly manages his or her health risks. In addition, wellness programs can result in higher worker productivity, fewer sick days, and fewer health claims. A study from Interactive Health Solutions, Inc. found that for companies with wellness programs, employees on workers' compensation returned to work up to nine days sooner, and those on short-term disability returned 17 days sooner.
"It absolutely works," says Gregory Liposky, president of Creative Benefit Solutions, a benefits consulting firm. "Over three to five years there can be anywhere from a 100% to a 300% return on investment for a dollar spent on wellness initiatives."
The investment necessary for an effective wellness program can vary, with tactics ranging from an expensive on-site workout center to low-cost informational posters in the employee lounge. There are a number of free resources available to businesses, including the U.S. Chamber’s Workplace Wellness Programs: Promoting Better Health While Controlling Costs. Here are a few tactics gaining momentum across the country:
Nurturing Nutrition. Encourage employees to choose healthier foods. Replace vending machine candy bars and chips with dried fruit, nuts and healthier snacks. Instead of sodas, offer juice and water. And for employee meetings, select a caterer serving healthy, fresh food.
Educating Employees. Learning about healthy habits can be the first step to a healthier lifestyle. The Society for Human Resource Management reports that 45% of employers offer health and lifestyle coaching. Businesses can bring in speakers for lunch seminars to discuss approaches and tips for eating, exercise, and stress reduction. Employees can also learn with online resources, such as from the company insurance provider.
Working for a Workout. Some companies have invested in on-site workout centers or funded employee memberships in local gyms. Yet, encouraging employees to stay active need not cost much. Employers can provide a place for employees to store bikes during the day, encourage employees to take the stairs to the office, or go for a group walk during lunch.
Stop Smoking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that male smokers miss an extra four days of a work annually and incur an extra $16,000 in long-term medical expenses; women smokers incur $18,000 in expenses and miss work two extra days a year. The Partnership for Prevention suggests that employers implement tobacco-free policies, offer treatment benefits through the company health plan, and facilitate access to telephone cessation support.
Prevention and Screening. Preventing a disease or catching it early in its development can reduce overall treatment costs. Encouraging cancer screening can be as simple as e-mails or posters, or businesses can contact health organizations to bring screening services to the workplace. For other diseases, employers can offer on-site vaccinations or a reminder to have regular check-ups with a doctor.
Incentives as Investments. Another way to encourage employee health is with incentives, such as a reward program or bonuses based on healthy choices or lifestyle changes. An Aon Hewitt study found that 25% of employers with incentivized wellness initiatives focus rewards on improving blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass index. Nearly 60% offer incentives for weight loss, stopping smoking, and fitness, up from 31% in 2011.
Employers can use a Health Risk Appraisal questionnaire (often available from an insurance provider) to better understand their staff’s needs and determine which health programs and incentives can support the most improvement. Keep in mind, however, that controlling costs is not solely dependent on an employee’s healthy habits. Genetic, age and socio-economic factors impact health as well. Nevertheless, creative and often inexpensive efforts can help employers mitigate rising health care costs.