Culture of Wellness

A recent report from Optum, a health services technology and consulting company and a subsidiary of United Healthcare, finds that for all the investment in and publicity surrounding workplace wellness programs, a ‘culture of wellness’ remains elusive to employers.

All employers, of course, would like to reduce costs due to absenteeism, presenteeism and employee health care costs. 60 percent of large employers surveyed say they believe it is important to achieve a culture of health at work. But only one employer in five reports that they have had success.

The report explores ways to bridge the gap between the ‘culture of health’ that employers want to create, and the reality of the American workplace.

How can employers do a better job of leveraging their wellness programs and creating the culture of health they say they desire? Optum makes the following recommendations:


Get leadership more engaged.

Human resources departments should do a better job selling business leaders in other units on the benefits of workplace wellness initiatives. For example: 74 percent of HR workers believe that workplace wellness programs can help reduce employee health risks, and 77 percent of them believe that these programs have a positive effect on the company health care claims profile. 

Only 64 and 60 percent of non-HR executives, respectively, believe that these two metrics are reasons to offer a wellness program. The difference represents a lot of untapped leadership potential, as leaders outside of the HR department are not selling the program as much as they should be.


Expand focus from physical health to include more aspects of human health.  

There are lots of factors that contribute to the overall well being of your workplace. Physical health is just one of them. But while fully 95 percent of employers do take some steps to address their employees’ physical health, only about two thirds of employers address mental health and behavioral health issues in formal wellness programs at all.

Furthermore, only 37 percent address employees’ financial health, even though multiple studies confirm that both mental health issues and financial stress can contribute significantly business costs.

Optum analysts urge employers to introduce new behavioral and mental health, financial health and social health solutions to existing workplace wellness programs, both to address these problems directly and to get more people engaged with their employee benefits program in general.


Increase Incentives for Successful Participation in Employee Wellness Plans

On average, employers committed about $400 per year to incentivize employees to participate in workplace health and wellness programs. Companies are providing cash incentives, company contributions to health savings accounts, reductions on health care premiums, gift cards, additional vacation or time off, and of course cash incentives though these are less common, amounting to only 15 percent of employers in 2015, compared to 36 percent who made company contributions to health accounts and 32 percent who offered reduced health insurance premiums to individuals who successfully completed certain wellness milestones, such as engaging in a biometric screening or completing a health assessment.

These last two milestones, of course, are one-offs, not long-term changes in actual behavior. And recent rule changes from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have restricted the way employers can incentivize employees for completing surveys and biometric screenings, anyway.

The report’s authors encourage employers to provide incentives not just for these specific activities, but for successful attainment of actual health goals and the sustainment of positive results.

Ideas include group incentives to leverage peer encouragement for meeting targets as a group, participating in wellness coaching, disease management objectives, and other activities.


Other Measures

Optum’s researchers also make note of other options to help create a culture of wellness:

–  Have programs that support employees who travel

–  Change the environment at work

–  Provide on-site medical clinics or appointments

–  Have an on-site health promotion specialist

–  Integrate telephone and in-service delivery

–  Track and improve key metrics including participation levels, claims reduction, absenteeism/presenteeism and productivity levels.

The full study is available here.


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