Health Reform Prompts Employers to Get Creative with Wellness

December 15, 2010–The epic debate on health care raised plenty of controversy and confusion – but one thing that people across both aisles seemed to agree on was the need for a renewed focus on wellness and prevention at the workplace, in schools and at home. While wellness didn’t get nearly as much media coverage as other aspects of health reform, the bill does include grants for small businesses to implement wellness programs; requires qualified health plans to cover the cost of certain preventive care services; and allows employers to increase incentives for participation in wellness programs to 30% of the cost of coverage, up from 20%.

These latest incentives in health reform are prompting more and more employers to start or expand wellness programs. In fact, a recent survey of 282 employers by Watson Wyatt and the National Business Group on health found that 72% were enhancing onsite programs aimed at stress management, EAPs or health coaching; or plan to do so in the next 12 months. As workplace wellness programs become the increasing norm, the question is no longer “Why wellness?” but “How?” How does wellness work on a limited budget? How does a wellness program achieve maximum results?

The answer begins with engagement. If employees don’t believe that it is in their best interest to prevent illness and make healthy lifestyle choices, they will have no interest in participating in wellness at the workplace. Achieving employee buy-in can be a major obstacle in wellness, as a recent Towers Watson survey found that 58% of employees lack engagement. To maximize employee engagement, wellness leaders need to involve employees in the entire wellness process, from preliminary planning through implementation.

Before launching a full-scale wellness initiative, the first question to ask employers is, “How well do you know your workforce?” Too often, brokers, HR and wellness leaders think they know exactly what employees need in a wellness program, but never ask the employees themselves. A simple electronic survey will gather this imperative data, and get employees engaged from the start. These surveys are extremely cost-effective, completely confidential, and employees appreciate the opportunity to provide input. This critical step in the planning process gives employers vital information and insight about what employees’ biggest health concerns are, what motivates employees, what communication and outreach will be most effective, and what employees think the wellness program should include.

Wellness needs to be less corporate, more personal
The next step to maximizing employee engagement involves creating the message, and in essence, ‘selling’ wellness to the workforce. With trust in government, big business and corporations waning in tough economic times, wellness cannot come across as a ‘Big Brother’ program, created to financially benefit the corporation and access employees’ private information. The focus has to be less corporate, more personal. Take the example of a recently featured company, Premier, in the wellness publication Ballentyne. By teaming up with ACI Specialty Benefits and implementing programs such as “Well.I.Am,” “Be Well Bucks,” and “Biggest Loser,” the company was able to incorporate and engage a 40-person volunteer wellness program which has been instrumental in strengthening the health and well-being of their workforce. With companies having to offer wellness to employees because it is the right thing to do, an investment in employee well-being, and a way to give back to employees for all their hard work and dedication can ultimately be achieved through implementing and engaging co-workers. Wellness is supposed to help employees feel empowered and take control of their health. Employees don’t care about saving the company money; they only care how wellness benefits them on a personal level. Employees would welcome a program designed to reduce stress, increase energy levels, strengthen personal resilience, and enhance quality of life. This message of individual empowerment and betterment needs to be clear and strong in all written, online, and verbal communication about the program. By crafting a strong marketing and communication strategy behind a wellness program launch, an organization prevents employee cynicism and skepticism, and builds employee enthusiasm and excitement from the start.

An easy way to make the wellness message personal is to get employees involved in creating it. Companies can hold a contest to have employees come up with the best name or slogan for the wellness program, and employees can all vote on the submissions. Another idea is to invite employees to share what motivates them to get well: “I want to fit into my pre-pregnancy skinny jeans,” “I want to walk my daughter down the aisle without getting out of breath,” “I want to blow people away at my 20-year reunion” or “I want to feel less exhausted at the end of the day.” Share these motivational statements with employees by posting them on the wellness website, flyers, t-shirts, or other wellness promotional materials, and have employees vote on the funniest, most inspiring, or most likely to succeed. Incorporating personal goals into the wellness message helps employees identify with the program and feel more inclined to engage in ongoing activities.

Get creative with communication and outreach
In addition to a strong message and marketing campaign, it is important to insure that the method of wellness communication is effective and reaches the maximum amount of employees. If employees have large populations of Hispanic employees, wellness materials should be provided in Spanish and Spanish-speaking staff should be available to administer BMI testing and answer questions at health fairs.

Some companies have large populations of off-site or remote employees, and require creative communication strategies to effectively engage these employees. For example, ACI Specialty Benefits was recently challenged to work with a corporate trucking firm who had utilized two previous wellness vendors without significant success. Thomas Lee, Chief Sales Officer for ACI remembers, “Early on in the program, ACI conducted an assessment of the groups ‘Readiness to Change,’ and found major communication barriers in reaching truckers on the road. Truckers could benefit most from wellness offerings, but they just weren’t getting the message. We decided the best way to overcome this obstacle was to utilize the “MobileMax” message delivery system in all trucks to deliver wellness information and HRAs. The strategy was a huge success, and we were able to increase HRA participation over the previous vendor by 1000%.”

Build enthusiasm with strong health fair and annual challenges
Creativity does not end with marketing and communication; the wellness program must get creative in the program launch, health fairs, and ongoing promotions and challenges to maintain high levels of enthusiasm and engagement. Health fairs and benefit orientations should be lively, with plenty of interactive elements like dance and yoga classes, massage chairs, great giveaways and other outside-of-the-box elements. After an exciting launch, there should be an immediate and strong wellness promotion, like a Biggest Loser contest.

ACI Specialty Benefits kicked off the 2010 New Year with its own resolution to serve as a model of wellness, and began a 10-week Biggest Loser challenge. Staff was broken into teams, each led by an executive for this wellness challenge. To ensure fairness, ACI’s wellness team created a unique points and reward system that measured success by percent of total body weight lost, not just pounds. Additional points were earned for participating in physical activity, including ACI’s on-site yoga and strength-training classes, and smoking cessation. At the end of each week, individual and team winners earned anything from ½-day Fridays to healthy catered lunches. At the end of 10 weeks, employees lost over 100 pounds and completed over 400 hours of physical activity. “We had an incredible 86% participation rate,” says ACI’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Erin Krehbiel; herself a marathon runner. “It was great to see everyone motivate each other to eat healthier, take the stairs, try yoga, and make healthier choices in general. That’s what wellness is all about.”

Challenges should be based on employees’ health goals in order to maximize engagement. It helps to involve employees in the development phase, by creating workforce wellness committees focused on specific goals: the stress management team, the smoking cessation committee, the healthy eating task force for example. Employees of all levels can work together to develop the best strategies to tackle these major wellness goals, share best practices, and brainstorm on creative challenges, promotions and incentives that would work best. Employees involved in the wellness planning and implementation help generate buzz throughout the workforce, and are more invested in wellness success.

Shift the discussion to insure leadership buy-in
One of the major reasons behind ACI’s Biggest Loser success was the high-level of engagement by executives and company leadership. When it comes to executives, the wellness discussion often gets stuck in a numbers game. What is the projected ROI in year one, year two, year five? What is the financial impact on health care costs? While these are all important business questions, there exists countless data, research and case studies that consistently confirm the financial benefit of wellness programs. It’s time for a major shift in the conversation. It’s time to ask leadership their thoughts on wellness, stress management, family health, preventive care, and health education; and what role the company has in fostering a healthy work environment. A good indicator of a workplace that is ready for wellness is one that already has other healthy initiatives in place like an employee assistance program, work/life programs, concierge services, and safety training. If leadership believes that these programs help attract and retain employees while building a healthy and more productive workforce, they will be more inclined to buy into workplace wellness. Leadership buy-in requires more than lip-service though, it requires action. Considering that executives generally set the tone for everything from work styles to dress codes, when they serve as an example of wellness, employees will follow.

Leadership also likes instant gratification, which can a bit of a challenge in the beginning of the wellness process. When reporting wellness outcomes, it is important to keep the focus on engagement success and include employee feedback, survey results, success stories, participation rates and other engagement-related information and results. Another often overlooked component to wellness reporting is the number of employees “who didn’t get worse,” or in other words, employees who maintained good health–an extremely important factor in prevention and wellness success. The bottom line is that wellness success begins and ends with employee engagement. When employees are excited about wellness, they take the message home to families, support co-workers in healthy initiatives, and become part of the solution.

Dr. Ann D. Clark is CEO and Founder of ACI Specialty Benefits, a Top 10 EAP and leading provider of student assistance programs, wellness, concierge and work/life services. A best-selling author, Dr. Clark is one of the original Certified Employee Assistance Professionals (CEAP) and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She can be contacted at [email protected].