‘Random acts of wellness’ don’t work. Here’s what does

Rises in healthcare costs, chronic conditions and unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as drinking, physical inactivity and medicine non-adherence, are causing a rise of another kind: an increase in the number of employers embracing wellness programs.

It’s an important quest, says Ron Loeppke, vice chairman of U.S. Preventive Medicine, a wellness and population health-management company. Not only do wellness programs cut down on healthcare costs and help treat and prevent chronic illnesses, but they make a big impact on important factors for employers.

“One of the biggest points of value of employee wellness is [that] it becomes a driver of other business priorities for employers,” Loeppke said Tuesday during the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans’ Health Benefits Conference and Expo in Clearwater, Fla. “They get better employee performance, engagement, loyalty, morale, attraction and retention.”

Still, despite a greater focus on workplace-wellness programs, many employers are not getting it right.

“Wellness doesn’t work if it’s not done in the right way,” he said. “Random acts of wellness ain’t gonna cut it.”

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Related: Kathryn Mayer: Why the shift toward employee wellbeing matters

A number of industry reports have questioned the effectiveness of workplace-wellness programs. For instance, a JAMA article last year looked at the experience of 33,000 employees at BJ’s Wholesale Club over a year-and-a-half, and found that, while those enrolled in wellness programs said they exercised more and watched their weight, they experienced no significant long-term outcomes like lower blood pressure or sugar levels.

Loeppke, though, insisted that wellness does work–if a number of conditions are met in employers’ programs. Among them? Effective communication and implementation; incentives to motivate employees to participate in the program; employee input when developing goals and objectives; multi-year strategic planning; program accessibility; evaluation of effectiveness; a wide variety of program offerings; and executive management support of a culture of health and safety.

“You have to have management abide by a culture of health,” he said. “If management isn’t committed to it, it’s not going to work. They have to walk the walk.”

One way to do this is to train mid-level managers and supervisors on how to support and care for employees in terms of wellbeing, he said. Management also needs to work with HR managers on consistent, integrated messaging about the program–and to encourage participation among employees. A combination of community and personal engagement and high-tech solutions–like health-coaching programs that help employees cope with stress or manage their nutrition or weight–is ideal.

“There needs to be a significant branding campaign,” Loeppke said.

Research shows that, without significant commitment from the employer–and management in particular–employers have to pay a 300% higher cash incentive to get the same percentage of employees involved in a wellness program.

Related: 5 reasons to attend HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference

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“Stress is the most ubiquitous toxic exposure of our time,” Loeppke said.

Still, many employers aren’t offering enough support. According to recent research from Transamerica, while almost all employers believe improving mental health in the workplace is good for their business, 17% of employers acknowledge not offering any resources at all. The most common mental-health resources offered by employers are stress-management classes (39%) and mental-health-awareness training (39%).

Employers that focus on mental-health improvement in their wellbeing programs have seen a decrease in perceived stress from employees, an increase in vitality and a decrease in mental exhaustion, Loeppke said.

Overall, wellness support can have a profound impact on both employees and employers, he said.

“Employers that implement good wellness programs become employers of choice in their community. You’re helping your employees be healthy, and your retention is improving.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.