More Employers Committing to Wellness Initiatives

More Employers Committing to Wellness Initiatives

More Employers Committing to Wellness Initiatives

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

From health risk appraisals to weight management programs to providing health coaches, employer wellness programs and strategies continue to rise, according to a National Business Group on Health (NBGH) report released July 14, 2008.

“We have seen a sea change” among employers in the past five years as they “began to connect the dots” between employee lifestyle and employer payout on health coverage, NBGH president Helen Darling said at a Washington, D.C. news conference.

Chronic illnesses account for 75 percent of health care spending, according to the NGBH, and “employers are putting a much higher priority on wellness and lifestyle improvement programs than ever before,” Darling said.

Initiatives as simple as providing healthy alternatives in workplace vending machines and promoting walks around an organization’s facility can be effective in their own way for changing lifestyle habits, said Dr. Don W. Bradley, chief medical officer and senior vice president of health care at BCBS of North Carolina.

“We know small steps make a big difference,” he said during the briefing.

While acknowledging that lifestyle improvements are “not something you can change for two weeks,” over time such changes as increased physical activity and healthier eating habits “will lead to lower health costs” for the employer.

“To not do something,” Bradley said of employers, “is totally irresponsible.”

Some of the programs and strategies on the rise since 2006, according to the findings collected in November/December 2007 and January 2008 from 535 employers:

  • Health risk appraisals; 83 percent offer these in 2008, compared with 72 percent (2007) and 65 percent (2006).
  • Weight management programs focusing on reducing employee obesity; 74 percent (2008), 66 percent (2007) and 59 percent (2006).
  • Auditing or reviewing eligibility and enrollment in employer health plan; 73 percent (2008), 59 percent (2007) and 58 percent (2006).
  • Offering health coaching; 60 percent (2008), 57 percent (2007) and 53 percent (2006).
  • Implementing lifestyle behavior change programs purchased separately through specialty vendors; 56 percent (2008), 54 percent (2007) and 47 percent (2006).

The NBGH report found high employee interest in practical tips and access to a health coach for making lifestyle changes.

Among 1,213 U.S. employees surveyed, 87 percent said having information with simple, practical tips on eating healthier, getting more exercise, losing weight or quitting smoking would be helpful; 75 percent said a health coach would be helpful, the NBGH reported in How America’s Employers are Promoting Health and Wellness in the Workplace.

The briefing, hosted by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, included representatives from N.C.-based Food Lion LLC and Detroit-based DTE Energy who spoke about their organizations’ wellness initiatives.

Food Lion’s focus on wellness for its approximately 85,000 employees started in 2002, and it has steadily added components over the years, according to Pat Fulcher, vice president of associate services.

It uses health fairs, mammograms, flu shots and “lunch and learn” programs to build a sense of community in addition to promoting healthier lifestyles; offers healthy options at its on-site cafeteria; uses an exercise rewards web-based program; offers personal coaching for programs on weight management, nutrition counseling and smoking cessation; and hosts corporate wellness events.

Food Lion provides a 24-hour nurse assistance line; web-based educational and predictive tools, such as the Hospital Comparison Tool; and confidential health management programs for asthma, diabetes, heart and kidney disease, migraines, obesity, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and pregnancy.

“We want to support them when they’re healthy and help them when they’re sick,” Fulcher said. “Keeping people healthy and keeping them productive is very important.”

Senior leadership plays a big role in the success of such programs, according to Fulcher. She noted that the CEO leads participation in many of its other wellness initiatives, including the National Walk at Lunch.

“It shows the power of executive sponsorship,” she said.

DTE Energy, which has 10,000 employees and about 10,000 retirees, uses a program that rewards members who pursue health goals with enhanced benefits at lower cost.

Over a three-year period and through a $7.6 million investment in disease management programs—smoking cessation, and weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and alcohol use control—DTE Energy realized more than a $2.2 million savings from a reduction of missed work days and $9.8 million in medical claims savings for active enrollees, according to Richard Lueders, DTE Energy’s director of compensation and benefits in Detroit.

Its wellness programs, he said, are changing the types of conversations employees are having with their physicians. They are talking about their total health, not just an ailment for which they are seeking treatment.

“If we can help people stay well,” he said, “then we’ve really achieved a win-win” for the shareholders, employees and their dependents.