Wellness Strategies

Use a Multi-Step Approach to Improve Employee Health

To improve employee health and impact the bottom line, employers should consider a multi-step approach to workplace wellness.
By: | August 28, 2014

Employers seeking to reduce their workers’ comp and other health care-related costs should consider wellness plans that go beyond simple programs, suggests a new report. It found that employers saw greater participation rates when they created a corporate culture that focused on healthy behavior.

The National Business Group on Health examined data from 105 large companies from 2012 to 2013. While most had key strategic elements in place, few had successfully incorporated wellness into the corporate mission.

“Employers should consider a multiple step approach to improve employee health,” the report concluded. “Creating an environment that supports health, providing the programs to support behavior change, and engaging the different levels of the workforce will help move employees to a healthier status.”

For example, they found that while more than nine out of 10 companies offered programs for employees to increase their physical activity, only 65 percent had policies that allowed them time to participate during the workday.

“Because time is an obstacle to maintaining a healthy lifestyle at work, corporate policies offering flexible work time for physical activity can make it easier for employees to take advantage of these programs and resources,” the report said. “Companies that had flexible work policies had a higher percentage of employees who engaged in physical activity regularly.”

The Study

The study, “Measuring the Impact of Wellness on Workforce Health,” is based on employers’ WISCORE®, a wellness impact scorecard developed by the NBGH to determine the effectiveness of their wellness programs on workforce health. It includes various healthy behaviors such as physical activity, eating nutritiously, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress, and eliminating smoking.

“For employers who make significant investments in improving employee health, it is critical to be able to show a positive outcome,” the report stated. “One of the critical ways to show improvement is by tracking the healthy behaviors and status of the workforce over time. After implementing various wellness programs, are employers seeing an increase in the workforce engaging in healthy behaviors on a regular basis?”

The Findings

Employers’ greatest success has been around physical activity — engaging workers in regular physical activity and specific physical activity programs. Employers had a median of 62 percent of employees who were physically active, second only to the 93 percent who were non-tobacco users. Employers also saw a median annual increase in the percentage of employees who were physically active of 3 percentage points.

“The success around physical activity is likely due to the multi-faceted programs that include mobile technologies, social influence through team or individual competitions as well as multiple opportunities to be physically active,” the report noted.

Spouses and dependents are included in the health improvement efforts of the majority of WISCORE users. Employers were often likely to offer them access to wellness programs and most offered incentives for their participation.

Environmental tactics and policies to improve behaviors remain areas of opportunity for employers. For example, just 65 percent of employers subsidize the cost of health food options, and fewer than 55 percent had corporatewide tobacco-free policies. Companies that are able to have tobacco-free campuses had a higher percentage of tobacco-free workers than others.

Changing employees’ health habits remains challenging for employers, especially in getting employees to maintain a healthy weight. The median percentage of employees who were at a healthy weight was 35 percent.

Because time is an obstacle to maintaining a healthy lifestyle at work, corporate policies offering flexible work time for physical activity can make it easier for employees to take advantage of these programs and resources.

Stress management is another area where many companies offer interventions. Relaxation programs such as yoga and meditation are offered by 79 percent of the employers while others offered mindfulness-based stress reduction and resiliency or energy management programs. Many also offered job-related skill building courses dealing with problem solving, conflict resolution. communication, and flexible work policies to eliminate common job stressors.

Increasing Participation

“To drive significant changes in the health of the workforce, employers need to attain significant participation levels in their wellness programs,” the report said. “Yet, engaging employees, specifically the ones who need to change their behaviors, continues to be a challenge for employers.”

Companies are most successful at driving employee engagement when they use leadership support, including middle management, financial incentives, and communications, the report said.

“Employers whose senior leadership visibly supported their wellness strategy by sending out communications and participating in programs experienced higher participation rates for nearly all programs than those organizations whose leadership did not visibly engage,” according to the survey. “Companies that provided health and wellness metrics (e.g., wellness program participation and health behavior rates) to division heads and line managers were able to connect employee health to business success. These companies found higher participation rates in programs for all six programs measured.”

While employers are having somewhat limited success in increasing participation rates in various health improvement programs, they are seeing improvements in the health behaviors of their workers, the report concluded.

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].