Companies eye wellness program as means to cut health costsEmployers are increasingly taking a broader look at the health of their companies and viewing a wellness program as an important business strategy.
By: Karen Shideler, McClatchy Newspapers
WICHITA, Kan. — Employers are increasingly taking a broader look at the health of their companies and viewing a wellness program as an important business strategy.
Those who have a wellness program say it is the right thing to do, produces happier employees, is a way to impact costs and allows benefits to be crafted to meet needs.
Nationwide, 81 percent of companies with 50 or more employees have some kind of wellness program, said Jessica Tarbell, corporate wellness director for the Greater Wichita YMCA, though it's impossible to know how extensive those programs are.
A good wellness program goes beyond offering discounted gym memberships to employees.
Eight to 10 years ago, Wichita IT provider High Touch offered employees a 50 percent match, to a certain dollar amount, for the purchase of fitness equipment or gym memberships.
"But what we found out was we were rewarding intentions," said Kathy Lawrence, human resources and marketing director. "We really didn't know if they were using it."
High Touch's program now incorporates health risk assessments, meetings with a health coach to set goals, incentives, in-house challenges and "lunch and learn" sessions on topics such as CPR.
Benefits are designed based on aggregate results from the screenings, expenses have dropped and participation has increased as a result of changing the program, Lawrence said.
"I think every company should be doing, and can do, some sort of wellness program," she said. "It doesn't take a lot of money; it doesn't take a lot of time. But it can be very valuable to the employee as well as to the company."
Aaron Wells, employee benefits director at Willis of Greater Kansas, an insurance brokerage company, said employers are beginning to think of health as more than a lack of sickness.
"Employers are starting to view health as a competitive economic advantage," he said. "They're finally starting to focus on the demand side of the equation instead of the cost side."
As was the case at High Touch, Wichita's Meritrust Credit Union has revised its wellness program to make it more comprehensive, said Byron Stout, vice president for human resources.
The corporate office got an on-site fitness center about six years ago, "but there wasn't anything behind it — it was just the 'build it and they will come,' " he said. The center, which includes a foosball table and Wii games, is used regularly, but it isn't convenient for the majority of Meritrust's employees, who work at other sites.
Encouraging physical activity was a good start, but it amounts to putting air in only one of a car's tires, he said. In the past year, Meritrust has expanded its program to include emotional, financial and community components:
Employees are encouraged to participate in activities such as the Komen Race for the Cure.
"That covers two tires" — involvement and physical activity, he said.
Massage therapists visit a different branch each week to help with stress. The first group of employees who went through a 12-week Financial Peace University class eliminated about $45,000 in debt and gained knowledge to help fellow employees and customers.
"It's a mind-set. It's a culture change," Stout said of the overall wellness philosophy.
Tarbell, of the YMCA, said upper management has to buy in to a wellness program for it to work — and has to decide what it wants from the plan: to reduce costs, to improve morale, to improve productivity.
From there, the company must set an operating plan that includes how data will be gathered and evaluated.
A small company can get a plan up and running in a month to six weeks, she estimated.
The city of Valley Center, Kan., started a wellness program July 1 after considering it for about a year, said city clerk Kristine Polian.
Employees earn a $25 gift card for participating in baseline biometric screening and an online health assessment. They earn points for participation in online seminars and healthy activities.
Polian said the city will look at the baseline assessments and other factors when it designs benefits next year. And management understands that any payoff may take a while.
"If we see a decrease in our experience in three years, we'll be happy," she said. "Ultimately, you want your employees to be healthy. Healthier employees are happier employees."
Wells said the new health care law includes federal grant money, expected to be available in 2011, to help businesses with 100 or fewer employees set up wellness plans — which means many businesses without programs could qualify. The programs will have to include four elements:
—Health awareness initiatives;
—Efforts to maximize employee involvement;
—Initiatives to change unhealthy behaviors;
—Workplace policies to encourage healthy lifestyles.
Regulations for the grants haven't been written, Wells said, but for those companies considering a plan, now is the time to "start thinking about how they would want their wellness program to look ... (and) get it ready to roll out" so that when applications are available, "hopefully, they'll be at the head of the line."