Is Workplace Wellness Dead? No, But We Can Do Better

One large California insurer believes that outdated workplace wellness programs are a waste of precious resources. It's exploring ways to customize wellness offerings instead.
By: | July 12, 2019

Zombies are plaguing the workforce. Not literally, of course, but one big California insurance company has likened outdated workplace wellness programs to the living dead.

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According to a CNBC report, Bryce Williams, a leader of Blue Shield of California’s lifestyle initiatives, labeled workplace wellness programs “zombies” in his call to phase them out.

“When something is not working, and it’s expensive and not delivering results, we need to do something different,” he said.

Williams cited the fact that workplace wellness programs often don’t make use of the latest medical research and little return on investment as reasons that the programs should go. He’s not alone in these views.

An April 2019 clinical trial found that workplace wellness initiatives do little to lower employee’s blood pressure, sugar levels or other health measures. Furthermore, the study found no significant reduction in workers’ health care costs.

That doesn’t mean that workplace wellness programs are wholly ineffective, however.

The same study found that workers enrolled in the program reported more positive health behaviors, such as exercising and weight watching, that could lead to reduced health care costs in the long-term — changes not lost on employers.

One brokerage’s health and productivity report noted that 64 percent of employers with workplace wellness programs are more concerned with VOI (value of investment), than they are about immediate ROI (return on investment).

Keep Wellness Programs Fresh

So what can workplace wellness programs do to reinvent themselves so that they can both create a culture of wellness and reduce their overall health care spending?

Risk Insider Monica Manske recommends that employers set up a sustainable infrastructure to keep their programs feeling fresh and engaging as new technology emerges.

Monica Manske, senior manager of workers’ compensation and employee safety, Rochester Regional Health

“Whether embracing the idea of starting a worksite wellness program or leading a mature program, identifying your foundation is a key component. Having a foundation to build off of allows you to continue to improve your program over time,” she wrote in 2018.

Other way employers have modernized their workplace wellness programs include increasing the use of wearable technology, such as FitBits and Apple Watches, to track employee’s health and safety.

Blue Shield of California is looking to both take a more individualized approach to wellness and include more technology in their new initiative, “Wellvolution.”

The program will provide users with a range of options including in-person resources, such as gym memberships and weight watchers classes, and app-based programs that help with stress management, sleep quality, and smoking cessation.

They’ve partnered with Solera Health, a health-tech start-up that focuses on developing technology that matches individuals to wellness programs that best fit their needs, to create their new service.

“When something is not working, and it’s expensive and not delivering results, we need to do something different.” — Bryce Williams, vice president, Lifestyle Medicine, Blue Shield

Under Wellvolution, employees will login to an online portal where they will answer some basic survey questions about their health goals. The service will then recommend an app or service that they can use as a wellness perk based on their results. If they don’t like the service recommended for them, they can change it at any time.

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Other workplace wellness programs have had great success with programs that focus on worker’s needs and specific pain points. 2013 Teddy Award Winner Miami-Dade County Public Schools revamped their workplace wellness program in 2016 with a strong fitness focus in order to help reduce comorbidities among its employees.

Injured workers who are at an increased risk for lost time based on health and wellness conditions meet one-on-one with dedicated nurses. Employees who engage in the voluntary fitness and nutritional education classes earn program incentives, including t-shirts, towels, and bikes, as they complete more workout classes.

The revamped program, dubbed Rebuilding Me, has been so popular with workers that they’ve had to increase the number of days trainers hold classes, from one day a week during the trial period to three times weekly. &

Courtney DuChene is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]