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Employee Wellbeing Works When Done the Right Way

by Jeff Brizzolara, PhD, MPH; Rajiv Kumar, MD; and Gary Smithson, MD

Employee wellbeing programs work. Not all of them, of course, but those that are high quality and evidence-based do produce measurable and meaningful results.

Over the years, there have been numerous articles and studies regarding the effectiveness of workplace wellbeing programs. For every few that say wellbeing programs are worth investing in, there’s one that says they’re not worth the effort and the cost.

Does this mean it’s “game over” for workplace wellbeing? Absolutely not.

There is so much more to wellbeing programs than simply asking employees to complete a health assessment, a biometric screening, and some basic activities. Doing the bare minimum simply won’t move the needle on employee health and wellbeing in the span of 12-18 months. As professionals who have been active in this space for more than a decade know, it’s just not that easy. It takes strategy, time, resources, and a true organizational commitment to produce meaningful, long-lasting results.

Individual components like screenings and health assessments must be integrated into a comprehensive health management program that is part of an employer’s benefits ecosystem. Examples of high-value health management components whose utilization and effectiveness both improve when well-integrated into an employer’s wellbeing programs are disease management, treatment decision-support, benefits navigation, quality and cost transparency, advocacy, onsite health services and telemedicine.

It’s no secret that employers shoulder enormous weight when it comes to healthcare costs for their employees — over 80 percent by some estimates, covering millions of employees nationwide. And that’s not counting any contributions employers make to health savings accounts or Health Reimbursement Arrangements. As long as employers bear the brunt of healthcare costs, it’s only prudent for them to do everything they can to control risk. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by creating a work environment that encourages employees to take a vested interest in their health. An article by the Harvard Business Review brings up some excellent points about why the workplace is not only the right place for wellness, but is perhaps the best place to begin. The piece concludes by bringing up the very question that we should all be focused on: rather than wasting time discussing if wellness works, why not find out what specific ingredients go into running and executing a successful wellness program?

Those who design wellbeing programs for employers have learned that there is no secret

formula, silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every organization. However, most successful wellbeing programs have some commonalities that, when combined, can make all the difference. It takes time and a commitment, but success is well within reach.

Culture of Wellbeing

There’s a reason why this item is mentioned first; it’s arguably the most important. Building a culture of wellness is about more than just implementing a shiny new wellbeing program with all the bells and whistles. It’s about making wellness a focal point within an organization and encouraging employees to prioritize their personal wellbeing. This may include offering healthier food in the workplace cafeteria and at meetings, as well as giving employees time to devote to wellbeing. It’s also about ensuring the workforce has the resources needed to support themselves as they work to make wellness a lifestyle.

Leadership Commitment

The success or failure of a wellbeing program depends in large part on how invested the leadership team is in its success. Employees typically look to senior executives and managers for guidance. If those leaders are indifferent to the program and don’t seem to care about their own wellbeing, then how can the organization expect employees to get stoked about the wellness efforts? Instead, the leadership team should be leading the charge toward wellness and should be the first ones to engage in the program and make healthier choices.

Focus on Long-Term, Sustainable Behavior Change

Many programs focus on short-term initiatives and transactional interactions with employees. While lunch and learns, onsite classes, and educational materials can play an important role in an overall wellbeing strategy, there must be a longitudinal focus on helping employees change their daily routine to adopt healthy habits that will stay with them for a lifetime. This requires a robust technology solution, driven by a mobile app and wearable device, that seamlessly integrates into an employee’s lifestyle, meets them wherever they work or live, and helps them to establish lasting behavior change.

Leverage Data to Personalize

Wellbeing programs should resonate with employees at various levels of health. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to meet the needs of an entire population. The effective programs are the ones that take into account an employee’s personal interests, goals and unique health needs. Leveraging population data, such as demographics, biometrics, and medical claims data, provides a robust picture of each individual’s health, needs and goals and allows the program to tailor their wellbeing journey accordingly.

Strong Communication

If employees do not know that a wellbeing program exists or fail to see the value of it, then it’s possible to have the most well-thought-out, impactful program, and no participation. Sending out an initial announcement email is not enough to drive participation. The best programs utilize multiple channels of communication — including but not limited to emails, postcards, posters, SMS text, and push notifications — which are all tailored and targeted to not only spread the word about the program, but to offer encouragement, advice and information regarding deadlines and incentives.

Smart Incentives

Excellent health is its own reward. But offering additional incentives to employees that participate and progress in the program can nudge them to stay engaged and take healthier actions. Traditional incentive methodologies rely on one-time, lump-sum rewards. More effective approaches incorporate the principles of behavioral economics — unbundling rewards from larger payment such as paychecks and health premiums; rewarding employees for progress, not just participation or completion; rewarding employees with smaller amounts often and in real- time; and offering them choices when it comes to rewards redemption. While there are many creative incentive options to choose from, including gift cards, extra paid time off, and charitable donations, the most effective incentives are the ones that matter the most to employees.

Focus on Goals

The most successful programs are the ones that align perfectly with an organization’s long-term objectives. It’s important for employers to fully consider what they’re trying to achieve with their wellness efforts prior to implementing a wellbeing program. They must decide if they are looking to create a culture of wellbeing, provide support for those looking to make healthier choices, control healthcare costs, or all of the above. Whatever their decision, it’s important to decide on a set of key metrics that they can use to evaluate success, as well as make appropriate adjustments along the way.

While there will always be debate over how to best measure the success of a program — from engagement to health improvement to cost savings — everyone can agree that healthy and productive employees are the backbone of any successful business. And really, if the workplace doesn’t support and encourage the health of their workers, who will?

Speak to an expert at Virgin Pulse today to learn how an effective employee wellbeing solution can drive real results for your business.