Workplace wellness programs get a bad rap. Some skeptics and industry critics deride all such efforts as well-meaning but ineffective, labeling them as deserving recognition for their positive intent, but not for their impact. They cost more money than they save; their tangible benefits appear underwhelming at best. Judging by the critical literature, it would seem clear workplace wellness programs were well on their way out of the office door, dismissed as a nice experiment that didn’t pan out. As one such skeptic succinctly sums up this position in an article on the subject: “It is time to move on from corporate wellness programs.”
As someone who works in the industry and has both seen the efficacy of these initiatives first-hand and can imagine their impact in future years, I have to politely disagree. Before I make my case, though, it might be best to review what constitutes a workplace wellness program in the first place.
In the simplest terms, workplace wellness programs are initiatives developed and implemented by employers to encourage their workers to live healthy lifestyles — and thus lead to fewer expensive claims on employer-sponsored healthcare. Most of these are two-parters; they have a lifestyle component, which encourages the employee to develop healthy fitness or eating habits to avoid the onset of chronic diseases such as smoking or obesity, and a disease management aspect, which helps participants who already have a chronic condition to manage their health and routine care effectively.
The brunt of these initiatives’ focus tends to go towards the latter group; as one workplace wellness proponent explained the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “At-risk employees suffer from factors like overweight, blood pressure, diabetes, and depression, which can lead to costly (and avoidable) health claims. At-risk people should be identified through personal health assessments and biometric testing, and encouraged — not coerced — to participate in personalized care-management programs to minimize their chances of becoming chronically ill.”
From a care standpoint, the benefits of a successful program are both clear and mutually applicable to employee and employer alike. One research brief prepared by the RAND Corporation reported that employee wellness initiatives like the above tend to reduce an employer’s average health care claims costs by about $30 per member, per month, with a notable 87% of the savings stemming from disease management initiatives. Extrapolated over companies with employee bases that count in the hundreds, the potential for savings is significant, if not outright remarkable.
That is, of course, if workers bother to take advantage of the wellness programs their companies offer. In 2014, another group of researchers at RAND looked into the matter and found that while 69% of surveyed companies offered such initiatives, utilization for those programs could be painfully low. According to the survey, employers who offered no incentives had a meager participation rate of about 20%; those who provided monetary or non-monetary encouragement saw that number rise to 40%. For most employers, these low participation rates do not make a compelling case for justifying the sheer amount of front-loaded work, hours, and resources they would need to put into designing, implementing, and maintaining a wellness program.
Here, then, critics have a point. Wellness programs don’t — or perhaps can’t — provide significant benefits if people don’t use them. Yet, instead of dismissing workplace health initiatives as a failed experiment, I believe that employers need to reorient their thinking and ask themselves why their wellness programs aren’t working as well as they should.
In my experience, two major structural flaws prevent widespread employee participation, the first being a matter of misaligning program offerings and participant interests.
Consider an employer-sponsored or subsidized gym membership. In all likelihood, the majority of the people who take advantage of the perk will be those who already go to the gym. The initiative isn’t necessarily attracting at-risk employees who would benefit the most from access to a gym; instead, it would primarily be helping employees who were already on the right metaphorical track do what they were already planning to do anyway. Thus, this variation of a lifestyle-based program wouldn’t do much to improve employee health or cut down on healthcare claims costs.
The second flaw lies in communication. It’s all well and good if an employer puts together a promising program — however, if no one knows that program exists, it might as well not. For instance, if a company spends time and money developing a lifestyle program to help its diabetic employees manage their condition and avoid potentially costly health problems but fails to advertise it or attract participants, they will end up having to write off a promising initiative as a financial loss.
Both of these issues stem from an organizational problem. Employers need to do a better job of integrating their initiatives into their overall benefits structure, incentivizing employees to take part over the long term, and achieving a high participation rate overall (ie; majority of targeted individuals). To accomplish this, they will need to ensure that employees are able to readily engage with the program at any access point, regardless of whether they are post-diagnosis with a chronic condition or simply looking to better their health.
Those looking for a case study of how to structure a high potential workplace wellness program should turn their attention to UnitedHealthcare Motion. Earlier this month, the insurance giant partnered with Apple Watch to create a plan that would further UnitedHealthcare Motion’s efforts to use health tech, financial incentives, and digital resources to make care more accessible, help enrollees better manage chronic conditions, and give all the opportunity to take charge of their health.
In this program, eligible employees earn rewards by walking nearly 12,000 steps — or more — on a daily basis, thereby creating a long-lasting routine of healthy physical activity. According to a recent press release from UnitedHealthcare Motion, the Motion program has seen an impressive 45% participation rate among its enrollees, putting it well above the 5% rate seen in some comparable employer-sponsored structures. More significantly, perhaps, is that of those who registered a device for the initiative, a full 59% remained active and engaged for at least six months — putting it well above the 29% of employees who maintain their gym memberships over the same period.
Now, I’m not positioning the Apple/UnitedHealthcare Motion collaboration as the be-all, end-all model for employee wellness initiatives. After all, while the program takes a broad step forward in demonstrating that lifestyle-based programs can be accessible and effective, it does not (yet) address the disease-prevention aspect that tends to provide companies with the lion’s share of return on investment.
However, I do believe that partnerships like this offer a glimpse into what the future of tech-powered employee wellness programs and health benefits might look like one day. The UnitedHealthcare Motion initiative proves that two Fortune-10 companies can come together to provide something new and productive at the intersection of technology and health-centered programming. Consider the up-and-coming features of the Apple Watch — fall detection, vitals monitoring, or even medical data storage. These tools could be used to forge a link between health care providers, insurance companies, companies, and employees in a way that surpasses the issue of individual claims and opens the door to the seamless integration of healthcare and daily life.
With greater tech and shared information, employee benefits programs can empower participants to take firmer control of their health outcomes and day-to-day maintenance, thereby saving companies money in the long run and forging stronger relationships between benefit providers and employees. Eventually, the trick of the matter won’t be creating the technology or the programs, but considering the naysayers to put aside their doubts and take hold of the future.