Workplace Wellness

Small Businesses Can Reap Benefits From Wellness Programs

A significant number of large employers are benefiting from wellness programs, but too many small employers are missing out on the potential savings.
By: | April 13, 2015

Work site wellness programs have the potential to improve employees’ health and reduce the frequency of injuries and costs of workers’ comp. But while the vast majority of large employers offer such programs, fewer than one-third of small businesses provide them.

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New evidence shows potential savings of $2.03 for every $1 invested in work site wellness programs. An ongoing study out of Colorado suggests small employers would implement such programs and their employees would participate and benefit from them if certain factors were met.

“Small businesses face significant barriers when considering work site wellness programs because they lack the money, time, and knowledge about how to implement them,” said Dr. Lee Newman, professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, and the study’s lead author. “We demonstrated that Colorado small businesses will adopt work site wellness programs if the program is provided free of charge and comes with advice on how to execute it. This study provides important on-the-ground insight into how to structure these programs.”

The article, Implementation of a Worksite Wellness Program Targeting Small Businesses: The Pinnacol Assurance Health Risk Management Study, was developed by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health and published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The large prospective, longitudinal case-control study sought to determine whether health promotion programs offered to small businesses help improve productivity and workers’ comp costs.

Pinnacol Assurance funded the study and worked with researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health. Trotter Wellness was the vendor for the health risk assessment and coaching services. The San Francisco-based Integrated Benefits Institute advised on measurement and process data.

The Study

More than 6,500 employees in 260 companies were included in the study. Pinnacol Assurance, the largest provider of workers’ comp insurance in Colorado, conducted “a first of its kind study to determine if worksite wellness could improve the health and productivity of Colorado employees, as well as workers’ compensation outcomes,” according to the study. Of the participating companies involved in the health risk management program, more than 70 percent continued it for more than one year with “97 percent reporting that worker wellness improves worker safety.”

Small businesses cite a variety of reasons for not implementing work site wellness programs such as costs, lack of employee interest, lack of management support, lack of program expertise, uncertain return on investment, and privacy concerns, according to the authors.

“In this study, we describe a group of small employers and their employees who participated in a single, health risk management program,” the study said. “The HRM program used in this study was designed to help employees identify and reduce specific health risks through healthier lifestyle choices. The primary objectives of the HRM program were to: 1) improve employees’ health profiles; 2) reduce workers’ compensation rates and costs; and 3) enhance productivity.

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Employers that participated were given summary reports on employee needs, development of an action plan on the basis of employee health goals, ongoing feedback regarding employee participation and progress, educational content for distribution to employees, and advice on program enhancements. They also were provided with a formal report that included industry baseline comparisons and cohort reporting when applicable.

To entice participation, employers were actively recruited through insurance agents and HRM training sessions. It was provided at no direct cost to policyholders.

Once enrolled, the employers were provided with information on various dates for the program and instructions for accessing the employer web portal, which also included information on the rollout and implementation of the program. They also participated in an orientation conducted via webinar by Trotter Wellness or in-person by Pinnacol Assurance.

The study included only small businesses — those with fewer than 500 employees. It was conducted between 2010 and 2014.

The Results

The study identified the following health conditions among the 6,507 participating employees:

  • Overweight — 34.3 percent.
  • Obese — 25.6 percent.
  • Depression — approximately 20 percent.
  • Chronic conditions, including chronic fatigue, sleeping problems, headaches, arthritis, hypercholesterolemia, and hypertension — 15 percent or more.
  • Smoking — less than 17 percent.

Most employees classified their overall health as being very good (39.5 percent) or good (37.2 percent). There were 15.1 percent who said their health was excellent, 7.4 percent said fair, and 0.5 percent said they had poor health. Approximately 10 percent said they were sedentary with no significant exercise, and 4.3 percent said they did not consume fruits or vegetables on a daily basis.

Nearly all employers said they believed wellness is “an important aspect of improving workplace safety,” according to the study.

“We have demonstrated that Colorado small businesses are prepared to adopt worksite wellness programs, if the program is provided free of charge and are given company-specific advice in program design and execution,” the authors wrote. “The cohort’s self-reported health risks and disease rates suggest that there are opportunities to address important modifiable health risks in the small business workforce.”

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The fact that the HRM program was “well established” and did not require “the investment of company resources into vetting various different HRM program options” were seen as key to the success of the program. The “extensive assistance provided” was also cited as important to attracting participation by small businesses.

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

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