The Secrets to Success in Wellness Programs: Leadership, Incentives, Healthy Workplace

Dec. 17, 2007
Wise executives recognize that while employees are most definitely human beings, they also are machines of production that require maintenance.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, preventable illnesses and medical conditions comprise approximately 90% of this nation's $1.4 trillion medical care costs.

A recent NASA study found that people who exercise have twice the stamina and productivity in the last two hours of the day than their more sedentary colleagues.

Data from one carrier show that members engaged in its wellness program experienced a 15% drop in claims over a three-year period and that by Year 3, companies with 5,000 employees or more record direct medical savings averaging $2.5 million.

Applied to other cost issues, those numbers would represent a boardroom-level crisis and business opportunity, but in many companies, that is not the case. Top executives are either not aware of the statistics and their impact on the bottom line, or they think it is not their job or within their capacity to address them.

The good news -- and the challenge -- is that this is not the case. Increasingly, the issue is being successfully addressed by wise executives who recognize that while employees are most definitely human beings, they also are machines of production that require maintenance.

A growing number of American businesses are responding by offering wellness programs, which always are a good idea, but which, because of three missing ingredients, often do not live up to expectations.

For more information on this topic including the National Business Group on Health Awards for 2007 click here.

One of those ingredients is leadership -- buy-in at the top. People don't like being told what to do, but most will follow the example of enthusiastic leaders who set and personally live up to high expectations.

That fact was supported by a business owner I know. In a newsletter article about his company's wellness program, he wrote:

"Quality, attendance and overall employee morale are up, which has a direct impact on the satisfaction of our customer..., but what I want to drive home is that it didn't happen by magic. In order for it to work, it takes commitment and dedication from the company's leadership team and that has been the key to our success."

The second ingredient is incentive. Wellness programs fail because, for most people, the rewards of exercise, losing weight and other healthy activities come so slowly. Destiny Health's wellness incentive program, Vitality, gets around that problem by, in effect, paying people to do the right thing.

Specifically, the program offers airline miles, vacation and merchandise rewards for healthy behaviors such as daily exercise, seeking preventive care, improving one's Body Mass Index, and lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels. And the rewards are not insignificant. In only two years, employees at one small Illinois business already have earned more than $100,000-worth of goodies, such as iPods and plasma TVs. In the process, they have both lowered their healthcare spending and improved their health.

This program was launched a dozen years ago by Discovery Health in South Africa and has more than two million members in that country, the UK and the US. Data from all of those countries offer convincing proof that incentives work. Thirty-three percent of the members of the UK plan, offered in collaboration with PruHealth, report changing their behaviors specifically to earn points under the program. Also in response to program incentives, more than 80% of U.S. members report starting either a nutrition or exercise program in the prior 12 months.

Another example of the impact that an appropriately structured wellness program can have is the tangible difference of up to 60% in preventive-care usage measured between members participating in such a wellness program and those who do not. This is a consequence, not only of the incentive structure of this program, but also of a drive to encourage preventive care through education.

The third and possibly the most promising ingredient in a successful wellness program is a healthy workplace; specifically changing the way people work to include wellness habits as part of the workday.

Won't that mean people will have less time to work, leading to more stress and pressure? An emphatic NO! Workplace wellness is all about encouraging healthy habits so that employees return home each day healthier than when they left home that morning.

Here are some examples of painless steps companies can and have taken to cut healthcare costs by encouraging healthy behaviors:

  • For breakfast meetings, replace those donuts and sweet rolls with bagels and fresh fruit.
  • Arrange for cafeteria or food vendors to offer healthy food choices. People like convenience, so if the vending machines offer fruit bars and bottled water, meaning employees have to leave the building to buy their Snickers Bars and Coke, you'll be surprised how many bad habits are changed.
  • Plan events and group activities that encourage employees to become active, such as stretch breaks, challenge events and contests. Some companies encourage "walking meetings." One replaced the expensive chairs in its meeting room with $20 exercise balls. The CEO notes that it impossible to sit on one of those without good posture. As a result, meetings are shorter and, as a bonus, employees emerge with stronger abs!
  • Offer on-site health professionals. When Destiny Health offered a yoga class, 30% of the company's employees signed up and late-day productivity rose.
  • Provide a supportive environment that makes healthy choices easy: bike racks, shower facilities, clean, safe and accessible stairwells.
  • Launch a pedometer program. Americans on average walk only 5,000 steps per day. Our data show that wearing a pedometer encourages people to increase that activity by an average of 3,000 steps.

Can American business reduce their healthcare costs? I hope the foregoing demonstrates that the answer is clearly "Yes." What it takes is leadership, incentives and a workplace where healthy behavior is encouraged.

The costs are small and the potential ROI is huge. Board room executives, take note.

Andrew Sykes is the Chief Wellness Officer for Destiny Health. .Headquartered in Chicago, Destiny Health's wellness-based strategy is modeled after the strategy of Destiny Health's parent company, Discovery Holdings Ltd., an international life and health insurance company that has successfully enrolled over two million members in its health plan since 1992. The companys Vitality Wellness Incentive Program is now sold as a stand-alone product to companies served by other insurance carriers

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