Wellness programs are becoming more popular in today’s economy as both employers and employees alike work to keep healthcare costs down. Wellness programs are workplace programs that promote healthy lifestyle choices, offer opportunities to take control of health issues and cut healthcare costs.
Programs may include education, athletic opportunities, on-site medical screenings, health coaching and participation incentives that foster a culture of fitness. Health insurers will often lower premiums for employers with wellness programs and employees who participate.
Wynn Las Vegas instituted programs in 2012, according to Carrie Messina, vice president, Human Resources, in part to control healthcare costs, both for the company and the employees. “We had to make sure we were paying attention to our plan so we could avoid large increases. A lot of companies this year experienced high increases in premiums.” Wynn Las Vegas and its employees didn’t.
Participation in the Wynn program means a 30 percent discount on health insurance premiums. The program isn’t based on points or scores, just on participation which includes free classes, access to an on-site dietician and a fully revamped, healthy employee dining room. “Employees were telling us ‘I stopped eating in the employee dining room because I didn’t have any willpower,’” Messina said. Nothing like being told the food is too good. The change to healthier choices resulted in another 800 employees using the dining room daily.
Human costs factor into wellness program equations. UnitedHealthcare builds wellness programs. When meeting with an employer, Wendy Ronovech, associate director, Health Education and Wellness, keeps in mind that the healthier and happier an employee is, the less absenteeism and the lower the healthcare costs the employer will see.
Most wellness programs are aimed at educating employees and giving them the tools to make healthy choices. At times, these programs lapse over into choices more suited for individual employees to make without input from an employer or third-party brought in by the employer, such as choosing to replace watching television with an active alternative or decisions on activities outside of work. These programs are new enough there are still legal questions as to how far an employer can go in seeking to control unhealthy but legal activities employees may participate in outside of work. For example, a smoking cessation program offered through work on a smoke-free campus environment is a healthy choice, but legal questions arise when an employee is let go because of smoking outside of work.
Currently both trends and laws side with incentives rather than punishments. Employees can be offered rewards such as prizes, bonuses and discounts on health insurance premiums for participating in programs but can’t be fined for not participating, though a higher premium undoubtedly feels punitive.
For any wellness program, maintaining engagement is essential, according to Ronovech. The first month or two of an on-site wellness program is spent getting to know the employees and the environment, completing needs assessment and polling the population, meeting with senior staff and gauging goals and vision. After that health screenings can give participating employees a snapshot of their own health and any issues they need to address.
Since participation is voluntary, lone wolves can choose the do-it-yourself option, but in order to get the incentives like discounted healthcare premiums, submitting to biometric screening is required. “These are voluntary tools and benefits for employees, not to force them to do what they don’t want to do,” said Messina of the Wynn program.
Ronovech recommends a three year approach when a wellness program is geared toward an outcome of changing employee behavior. The first year is spent creating awareness, the second getting people engaged and the third looking at outcomes.
“You can’t really hold people accountable for changing their lifestyles and improving their metrics if they don’t know about it,” said Ronovech. “If they understand you have three years to start improving, changing eating habits and exercise, you’re going to see more success.”
“The biggest perk is, the healthier you are, the more your health insurance is paid for you,” said Brian Bosma, an accountant with The Bosma Group. Working out together promotes team work, which transfers back into the office setting. Everyone’s working together whether they’re training for a 5k, running the Tough Mudder obstacle course or getting through tax season. The company keeps five bikes in the basement so staff can take rides through downtown Reno.
The motivation for putting together a program is two-fold, said Jeff Shaw, CEO, Southwest Gas. “We want our employees to be healthy and happy,” Shaw said. “That’s number one.” Second is that the more proactive a company can be about promoting wellness to employees the better that company can control rising healthcare costs.
When Southwest Gas executives couldn’t find a diabetes support program for employees, they created one called Managing Your Diabetes that combines education and biometric screening procedures that give employees access to their own healthcare data. When the company made the decision to go to smoke-free work environments, the company officers quit smoking, believing they couldn’t ask their employees to do what they wouldn’t.
The programs at Southwest Gas are set up so employees don’t have to pay to get the information they need in order to make healthy choices. “It’s a cost we incur, and it pays dividends for both the employee and the company,” said Shaw. “It’s a ‘we’re in this together’ approach we’ve taken for purposes of wellness for our employees.”
Tronox Limited, a company that mines and process titanium ore, has had an on-site, fully equipped gym at its Las Vegas site for 20 years, but only in the last year rolled out a wellness program at the Nevada operation, garnering about 30 percent participation. The program includes 24/7 access to health coaches by phone and annual biometric screening. Employees who take part receive a $480 wellness bonus. While wellness program participation is voluntary, the annual physical by a company-chosen doctor and the biometric screenings are not, and there’s no option for employees to use their own personal healthcare provider.
Offering screenings and physicals on-site makes access easier for employees. The easier participation is, the better the buy in. Bob Berglund, vice president, employee benefits, Boyd Gaming, said the company, which offers health insurance through a self-administered program, makes participation as easy as possible, including offering biometric screening on-site and providing on-site benefit counselors so employees can understand their healthcare benefits.
“It’s about getting healthier, learning about health and we hope in the long run to have less healthcare costs,” said Berglund. “Team members win by participating in the programs by having fun. The program is confidential and participation lowers significantly what comes out of the paycheck for insurance.”
Along with easy, fun is important. Ed Epperson, president & CEO, Carson Tahoe Health, says the company has really ramped up their program in the last few years and part of what employees seem to like is – fun. Along with 5k runs and yoga, Epperson put together a Tough Mudder team in 2012 on a dare, fairly convinced it was the one and only time he’d do the event. But word got out and it happened again in 2013. As for 2014? Chances are probably yes, Epperson said – because it’s just plain fun.
So do wellness programs work? The benefits of on-site gyms, healthy food choices, the encouragement and time to work out with co-workers may be obvious, but are the successes employees are making sustainable? Whether employers want to believe they’re making a difference and employees want to believe they’re making changes, in the end it’s the individual who has to sustain the choices that have led to success. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 75 percent of smokers who quit by using medication start again within six months. Estimates range from 50 to 95 percent of people who lose weight only to regain it.
There’s also the question of whether companies with successful wellness programs are paying into the programs the same amount they’re saving on health insurance premiums. Some studies have shown that companies with comprehensive wellness programs pay out in doctor visits and prescription drugs amounts that may be comparable to what they would have paid in employee hospitalizations. In many cases, however, a well-run wellness program offering incentives and finding employee participation can save a company anywhere from 20 to 55 percent on healthcare costs and find absenteeism reduced and productivity enhanced.
For Wynn Las Vegas, the future holds employee-driven wellness committees to drive the programs.
Brian Bosma hopes to see more competition in more races as members train to run half and whole marathons.
Jeff Shaw would like to see employee participation increase from the current 50 percent to 75. Ed Epperson would also like to see an increase in participation – to just about double – and also more data, “to back up the numbers we hear about folks and how they’re doing so well,” he said.
At Tronox, Tommi Bryan, Human Resources representative, said they’re taking into account participation from the wellness program’s first year and looking for ways to get more employees actively engaged.
“Any employer who doesn’t recognize the value of the asset they have in an employee, and take every opportunity to help that asset be as healthy and as happy as possible, is really missing out,” said Shaw. “We know that we’re never going to be successful without healthy, happy employees, pure and simple.”