7 tips: Benefits of employee wellness extend beyond cost

If your company has yet to instigate any sort of wellness program for its employees, it may be missing out on a chance to reduce healthcare costs.

The variety of wellness programs being implemented these days ranges from a free fitness center membership to smoking cessation programs to yoga classes to on-site napping facilities to free healthy snacks. Not only are many such programs possible to implement at very reasonable costs, but research shows they’re effective in whittling down healthcare expenses. For example, a study by the Institute for Healthcare Consumerism concludes that organizations with effective wellness programs realize an average $5.93 in savings for every dollar spent. Such programs reduce health costs by 26%, sick days by 28% and workers’ compensation and disability claims by 30%, it reports.

Some 76% of U.S. firms offer such plans, the institute says, and 59% agree they help reduce costs. In fact, they're so popular that the industry producing them generates some $8 billion a year.

Still, some studies have found their link to reduced healthcare costs too tenuous to measure. And a recent article from MITSloan concludes they don’t significantly improve employee health, partly because those who most often choose to take part already practice healthy behavior and incur lower medical expenditures.

Regardless of the conflicting research, no one is advising that such programs be scrapped by their corporate sponsors. Because they’re so cost-effective and do help a number of participants stay healthier, they can still bring value to workers who appreciate a wide array of perks and choices in their employer benefit packages. Further, there’s always room to improve such programs, and as changes are made, employers may see them impacting the company bottom line.

Here are some tips for companies wishing to start or improve upon their wellness programs.

  • Consider surveying employees to determine which benefits are of major importance to them. You may be surprised to learn that they most value inexpensive options like healthy eating rewards programs, health education speakers, the support of a healthy work-life balance and/or the freedom to take breaks for yoga, walks, meditation or naps.
  • Be aware of best practices and legal guidelines surrounding the gathering of employee health data. “Companies need to be transparent with their employees about who has access,” notes Alan Kohll in Forbes. “Employers also need to make sure their wellness vendors maintain the highest data privacy, security and compliance standards.”
  • Monitor any new wellness program regulations from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission relative to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).
  • Include programs that encourage employee self-care through mindfulness and similar holistic methods. “Self-care can help prevent burnout from work, help manage stress, and boost feelings of self-worth and confidence,” Kohll reports. “More people realize self-care is now essential, not an indulgence.”
  • Include effective financial wellness programs. Not only are they much in demand — one survey found they’re used by 68% of U.S. workers to whom they’re offered — but employee anxiety over financial issues has been linked with distraction, errors and lowered workplace productivity.
  • Consider providing ergonomic chairs, desks, computer accessories and workplace tools that discourage people from sitting at their desks all day. One report shows the average adult spends 50 to 60% of his day in sedentary pursuits, and the Mayo Clinic links sitting for long periods of time with obesity, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, abnormal cholesterol levels and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
  • Larger companies might realize value by establishing on-site health clinics. “In general, the healthcare they offer employees (and often, their families) is cost effective,” writes David Sosnoski, editor of Chiropractic Economics, on Fitsmallbusiness.com. “A worksite clinic can prevent employee downtime or vacancies, given that they can access care without travel. But a disconnect can occur if the employer thinks the health or wellness clinic will generate positive ROI — that’s rarely the case. Direct benefits are in employee satisfaction and often more productivity as a result.”

In short, you may find the returns you see from your employee wellness programs can’t necessarily be measured in tangible cost savings. But that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable and worthwhile. Talk to the experts at Ochs about customizing your wellness programs to fit the specific needs and wants of your workforce.