Understanding Employee Wellness Programs and Benefits

Have you ever calculated the total amount of hours you spend at work each month? If you have a full-time job, you spend approximately 140 hours in the workplace. That large part of one’s time combined with workplace stress can lead to poor sleep, bad dietary choices and other risk factors.

The good news is that organizations are taking notice of well-being in the workplace. About four-fifths of all U.S. employers with more than 1,000 employees are estimated to offer wellness programs, according to a 2015 Rand report.

Many employers succeed at coming up with a plan that promotes a healthy workforce, but for others, questions about execution and method can be overwhelming.

Before implementing a promotional health plan, businesses must understand what a wellness program is, within their corporate capacity, and what factors will make a program of this nature work.

What is an Employee Wellness Program?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines wellness in the workplace as “programs and activities offered to employees as part of an employer-sponsored group health plan or separately as a benefit of employment.”

Workplace health programs should not be confused with the add-on benefits provided by a company, although a company may include wellness incentives inside a benefits package. They are basic investments in human capital, just like mentoring and employee development programs.

When creating a wellness program, employers must make sure that they follow the legal requirements imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Under the law, wellness programs must be non-discriminatory, voluntary, be likely to promote health and protect confidential health information.

What’s Included in Employee Wellness Programs?

With these core rules in mind, there are innumerable options to encourage and promote well-being at the workplace. Wellness program models will vary per organization, but the most general program offerings cover screening activities, healthy lifestyle interventions and support for employees with chronic conditions, according to the Rand report.

These activities don’t just encompass individual engagement. A person’s health is also a result of actions taken within an environment; in this case, the workplace. So, programs should contain both individual- and organizational-level strategies. According to the CDC, strategies and interventions typically fall into four categories:

  • Health-related programs: opportunities available to employees at the workplace or through outside organizations.
  • Health-related policies: formal or informal statements that are designed to protect or promote employee health.
  • Health benefits: part of a compensation package. These include health insurance coverage and other services or discounts on health.
  • Environmental supports: physical factors at and near the workplace that help protect and enhance employee health.

Here are some examples from the CDC of what employers can use to create their own wellness programs:

  • On-site fitness centers (these can include weekly yoga classes or training sessions)
  • Access to healthy snacks and literature that promotes healthy eating habits
  • Access to education on topics like stress management
  • Activities that help create a culture of healthy employees
  • Preventive screenings (blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol tests)
  • Smoking cessation programs

What’s Not an Employee Wellness Program?

A report prepared by the Transamerica Center for Health Studies and the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health offers practical advice to employers about what to avoid when initiating a wellness program: masquerading a one-time event as a permanent promotion.

According to the report, the following practices do not promote a culture of health in the workplace:

  • Administering health risk assessments only
  • Paying people to change their habits
  • Introducing short-term campaigns
  • Hiring an outside vendor

Finally, one last factor to consider before creating a wellness program is its place within the health benefits plans offered to employees. Health benefit compensation packages may vary per company, but a well thought out strategy can help companies figure out if their employees would take advantage of one health service over another.

Do Wellness Programs Work for All Employers?

It depends. A successful workplace program is one that targets a specific employee population, as well as personal and organizational health goals. When employers engage in assessments about working conditions with their peers, for example, valuable feedback can transform into policies and best practices.

These assessments can be in the form of opinion boxes, email ideas or formal employee health surveys. According to the CDC, a company can succeed in implementing a program if it’s “carefully selected, implemented efficiently and is suited to the employee population.”

For example, Honest Tea, a Maryland-based tea company, transformed its twice-a-week yoga program to monthly wellness workshops that offer boot-camp workouts. The switch changed after a survey reported that young employees preferred more intense activities. The result? Participation exceeded 50%.

That means that with a thought-out plan, businesses do not have to spend significant amounts of money on large-scale program implementations. Two highly recommended strategies by the CDC include:

  • Focusing on one or two policies at a time
  • Using interventions that address many health issues at the same time

For example, implementing physical activity programs only and not considering nutritional programs may only affect obesity, but not type 2 diabetes.

How Do Wellness Programs Benefit Companies?

The right approach can also help employers reduce out-of-control healthcare costs and even produce a return on investment (ROI). In the Rand study, companies with disease management delivered 86% of the healthcare savings. This resulted in $136 in savings per member, per month.

The study’s findings make a clear case about calculating what the ROI will be for the company and how leadership can simultaneously cater to workers’ needs. This includes a proactive case of transparency with employees about the cost of health coverage and the total return on wellness beyond reduced claim expenses.

Employee wellness programs can translate to overall company performance. According to a report published in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, companies with high well-being scores outperformed the top 500 U.S companies listed in the Standard and Poor’s Index by 235%.

The Bottom Line

When done right, workplace wellness programs can offer long-term financial returns as well as results rooted in productivity. Access to employee wellness programs can grant employees the tools needed to excel at work and motivate them and their leaders to promote an organizational culture of health.

This culture, as defined in the report, is about a workplace that values and is conducive to employee health and well-being. It’s one that extends beyond individual programs and centers health at the core of companies’ compensation practices, policies and its physical space.

Fostering this culture of health can happen from the time an employee clocks into the last minutes of the busy workday. Or simply 140 hours per month.

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