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Employment-based Wellness Programs

By August 16, 2010Commentary

For several years companies have been expanding their use of wellness programs and 2010 appears to be another year of strong growth for vendors selling services related to workplace wellness efforts.  A recent paper issued by the National Institute for Health Care Reform summarizes what has been learned about creating effective wellness programs.   (NIHCR Paper) The report included a literature review and interviews with over forty experts and company executives.  The recent health law expands companies’ ability to use wellness program incentives, so understanding what works may be even more important.

Employers tend to get wellness program services either from specialized vendors or from their health plan, although some firms do the programs internally.  Most efforts involve risk identification, behavior modification and education and changes to the work environment.  Many programs use incentives to encourage employee engagement.  While incentives are usually financial, soft incentives such as employee recognition or workplace pride or even competitive achievement are also used.  Regulatory requirements may limit programs’ effectiveness, particularly in regard to what information can be collected for risk assessment.  ROI measurement is complex and employers should not have high expectations that lead to disappointment.

The authors conclude that the elements of success are a customized program that fits the culture of the employer and that individualizes the approach to employees; senior leadership engagement and support, particularly in linking the wellness effort to overall company success; ongoing communication that is varied over time to keep the message fresh; comprehensive programs which are well-integrated and diverse; use of hard and soft incentives and taking a broad view of the value to be obtained from the wellness effort.  The report is a useful summary description of wellness programs and the current evidence on how to make them effective.

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