Evaluating Workplace Wellness Programs for the Future

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Evaluating Workplace Wellness Programs for the Future

With Northeast Ohio well-known nationally as a hub for the healthcare industry, it comes as no surprise that local employers are largely keeping up with or exceeding many of the national trends involving workplace wellness programs.

Using a recently released study published by RAND Health and ERC’s own Wellness Practices Survey, we explore the current state of workplace wellness programs in order to gain a better understanding of what this research has identified as the likely next steps to move these programs forward into the future across the country or right in our own backyard.

Where Wellness Stands Today

The RAND Health study, entitled, Workplace Wellness Programs Study, evaluated a national cross-section of workplace wellness programs and found that 51% of the employers surveyed have formal wellness programs in place. Locally, ERC’s Wellness Practices Survey reported that 62% of participating organizations provide their employees with a wellness program. Similarly, a strong majority of the employers surveyed in both studies focused their wellness programs around some type of health screening activities such as Health Risk Assessments or other basic biometrics and then coupling the results with a suggested corresponding lifestyle management intervention.

Despite outlining strong programmatic offerings at both the national and local level, the RAND survey reported ongoing difficulties in terms of employee uptake of these programs. Slightly less than half of employees successfully complete the initial screening phase of a wellness program and the drop off only increases as 20% or fewer of this employee group goes on to participate in the recommended intervention identified during the screening process. On a more positive note, the RAND survey points out that among this small group of employees that do choose to engage in an intervention, the literature and their own analysis does demonstrate that these individuals see clinically relevant results in areas such as smoking cessation, weight control, and exercise frequency.

Incentivizing Participation

Although many employers in both studies do make use of some type of incentive to help encourage employee participation in wellness programs, the RAND study points out that these incentives may not be offering sufficient motivation to produce the desired participation levels. With the January 1, 2014 changes to wellness incentive regulations (up from 20% to 30% of the cost of coverage) put in place by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the RAND study points out that employers now have an even greater opportunity to capitalize on incentive based wellness programs.

Locally, employers cite a wide range of incentives, most of which are only tied to participation in wellness programs, but not specifically to achieving a health related outcome or goal. Many of the smaller incentives reported, such as gift certificates or small cash awards, were found to be widely used and widely helpful in increasing participation for lower burden health screening activities. However, when it comes to larger incentive amounts, the RAND study reinforces the results of ERC's Wellness survey, with both studies reporting much lower levels of utilization for some of the larger results based incentives that would be tied directly to health insurance costs for employees.

Measuring Success

Both surveys struggled to produce any significant evidence that employers were reaping a financial benefit in terms of managing overall healthcare costs. Although employers expressed significant optimism that their wellness programs were having some positive impact in terms of healthcare or other productivity related costs influenced by overall employee health, when asked more specifically about what metrics they could point to as evidence, very few organizations were able to produce these numbers. Despite their anecdotal positivity, locally about three-quarters of employers were ultimately unsure if wellness programs had actually reduced the health insurance costs for their organization and do not track the impact of their wellness programs on their health insurance costs. Even among the employers that already tracking the impact or "success" of their wellness programs, there is no set metric or definition of what ought to be measured and what determines success. Whether an organization is looking strictly for improvements in the health of their workforce overall or strictly for reductions in their health care costs (or some combination of the two), ultimately, each organization must decide what they want to see their wellness program achieve and how they will measure success.

Despite an apparent disconnect between the key stakeholders in workplace wellness programs, employer enthusiasm for creating wellness programs is high and employee participation is relatively low.  Moving forward, it is clear that ongoing engagement and evaluation of these programs will be key to building and maintaining successful workplace wellness programs. Ultimately, no matter how an organization decides to define success for their wellness program, all employers could benefit from an in-depth look at how their existing wellness program structure helps or hinders these goals. For some final guidance, we turn again to the RAND study, which puts forth several key strategies that their research indicates may be helpful to employers looking to build or maintain a successful wellness program, no matter how they chose to measure success. These include: (1) effective communication around wellness programming; (2) create opportunities for employees to engage; (3) engage leadership at all levels; (4) leverage existing resources and relationships; and (5) continuous evaluation of programs.

View the Wellness Practices Survey

This survey report summarizes the results of ERC’s survey of organizations throughout Northeast Ohio on practices related to health care and wellness.

View the Results