Boosting Employee Wellness is Achievable, but not Easy
There’s “good news” for businesses, say the authors of “From Evidence to Practice: Workplace Wellness that Works,” an analysis by Johns Hopkins University. Academic studies show that “when done right, workplace health promotion and disease prevention programs can improve the health of employees, reduce healthcare costs, increase productivity and produce a positive return-on-investment.”
All of these results are desirable, of course, and can be achieved by targeting certain areas, addressed below, that negatively affect overall health and well-being. But before you put a program in place, be aware of these limitations.
Any wellness program you make available must draw in employees voluntarily, because under federal law you cannot require participation. You also cannot deny access or limit health coverage to nonparticipants, or take adverse action against nonparticipants or participants who don’t achieve particular outcomes, like a weight-loss goal.
In addition, federal regulations limit the maximum permissible reward you can offer in connection with a “health-contingent” (results-based) program, to a 30% discount on the cost of coverage. For programs designed to prevent or reduce tobacco use, the maximum permissible reward is 50%. Those incentives can be effective; however, carrots alone won’t guarantee success.
A Wellness Culture
The Johns Hopkins study zeroes in on essential ingredients of a holistic “culture of wellness” that ultimately achieve more than an exclusive focus on particular health risk factors. Here are some of those elements and what you can do to address them:
Physical activity. Physically active employees are absent less frequently, by four days per year, according to research in the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine. Physically active in this case is defined as getting at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity. Here are examples that may help your company promote better health among staff members:
- Encourage employees to use the stairs.
- Integrate “short bouts of physical activity into the day,” such as by having “walking meetings” and even pacing during phone calls.
- Provide an on-site exercise facility or subsidize gym memberships.
- Lead by example by participating in those programs yourself.
Healthy nutrition and weight management. The implications of not eating well and obesity are clear. Suggestions:
- Install “healthy vending machines,” and include calorie values for each food alternative.
- Make water available and encourage employees to partake.
- Provide nutrition education programs.
- Supply only healthy food at company events.
Tobacco cessation. Tobacco use is the top cause of preventable death in the United States. Suggestions:
- Ban tobacco use and tobacco product sales opportunities at your worksite.
- Refer tobacco users to free smoking cessation resources such as 1-800-QUIT-NOW and 1-800-LUNG-USA.
- Include coverage in your health plan for free or subsidized nicotine replacement products, and tobacco cessation services.
Stress management. Some level of stress is inevitable, but chronic exposure to stress has debilitating psychological and physical effects. Suggestions:
- Provide group or individual stress management programs.
- Furnish dedicated space where employees can relax, apart from a lunch room.
- Help employees build social connections by initiating company picnics, athletic teams and similar activities. This is particularly important for employees who lack social ties because social relationships help prevent stress and “serve as buffers when stressful situations arise,” according to the Johns Hopkins study.
- Give employees opportunities to contribute to company decisions over matters that add to stress, including work schedules.
Clinical preventive screenings. Identifying issues with blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar “allows for early intervention that can reduce an illness’ severity and duration.” Suggestions:
- Survey employees to determine how many have had screenings or even know much about what their levels should be.
- Educate employees on what normal results look like.
- Provide screenings by healthcare professionals at health fairs and other workplace activities.
- Encourage participation in such free online programs as the American Heart Association’s Heart 360 and the American Diabetes Association’s “Are You at Risk?”
Getting enough sleep. Lack of adequate sleep is both a health issue and a workplace productivity problem. Suggestions:
- Promote healthy sleep habits with educational materials highlighting the importance of adequate sleep, including the National Sleep Foundation’s “Healthy Sleep Tips.”
- Provide access to such sleep wellness resources as the Cleveland Clinic’s online “Go to Sleep Program.”
- Try to minimize work schedule fluctuations that can disrupt sleep patterns.
Additional health risk factors to incorporate into a successful wellness program include diabetes and alcohol management, along with “social connectedness.”
What Should Your Company Do Now?
Start by acknowledging that essential to the success of any of these initiatives is careful scrutiny of the current state of affairs, as well as ongoing analysis of the impact of your endeavors. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Tailored health promotions require that you provide the necessary services and communicate them in a relevant, engaging way.
The goal of boosting employee wellness is achievable, if you’re willing to make a strong enough commitment to the effort. To help develop your own plan, you can read real life examples that are described in the study, “From Evidence to Practice: Workplace Wellness that Works.“