By David Klasnick
Employer wellness programs are mainstream components of benefit packages for most major companies. However, today’s programs have come a long way from their beginnings nearly 40 years ago.
The Introduction Of Workplace Wellness
In 1979, Control Data Corp. instituted programs for their workforce that would become the blueprint for future workplace wellness programs. Control Data Corp.’s Stay Well program included health awareness campaigns, health risk assessments or HRAs, and biometric screening to collect information on each person’s lifestyle behaviors and related physical measures.
The primary focus of workplace health programs was to reduce work-related injuries, thereby improving employee productivity and reducing costs. Employers and researchers soon noted a correlation between an employee’s overall health and job performance. Assessments were then followed up by offering employees worksite-based education to help them adopt healthier behaviors — quit smoking, exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight and manage stress. Both also recognized the role of organizational culture in employee health to drive better performance.
The Evolution Of Wellness
By the late 1980s, more major corporations began implementing workplace wellness, although many focused on onsite fitness centers. This was also the time when employers began to evaluate wellness program by capturing health care costs and productivity-related measures such as reducing absenteeism. In 1987, Milliman released the first large study linking lifestyle health risks with medical costs. Employers had the first compelling data suggesting that improved workplace wellness could impact rising health care costs.
Using data to segment the population and tailoring interventions to individual needs, employers began to understand the role of population health management. Interventions would be targeted across the population from those at highest risk to those at lowest risk, proactively managing risk across the population. At the end of the 1980s, more than 80% of corporations offered programs to improve employee health awareness, including 44% with fitness centers and 30% conducting annual HRAs, Nursing Economics reported. From that point, employers used this framework to implement various versions of workplace wellness programs – helping to create a $40 billion industry, the Global Wellness Institute reported.
Today’s Employer Wellness Programs
Today, employer wellness programs have moved from providing health information, counseling and fitness to include many preventive care elements to help keep employees well. This includes services such as immunizations and screenings, acute and chronic care, specialized services, and physical therapy.
Many of the goals of today’s workplace wellness programs remain the same. Employers want to reduce or control health care costs, as well as improve employee engagement in the workplace. Sixty-six percent of employers say engagement, increasing productivity, and reducing employee absences are primary wellness goals. In addition, 98% of employers told a National Business Group on Health survey improving physical health is an important wellness goal, followed by emotional health (92%) and financial security (90%).
But achieving these savings and driving engagement requires a large majority of employees to participate in company-sponsored wellness programs. Frequently, companies turn to incentives to help generate initial interest among employees to take that first step. The National Business Group on Health survey revealed 86% of employers offer financial incentives in their wellness programs. This can often take the shape as cash incentives, giveaways or insurance premium savings.
What’s To Come – Wellness To Well-Being
As employers take an increasingly holistic approach to employee wellness, stress management has become a higher priority to support employees’ emotional and mental health. This includes allowing for more flexible work schedules, encouraging open communication about employee assistance program benefits and creating wellness rooms to allow employees to take a breather at work, creating a shift from wellness to employee well-being.
Advancement in consumer technology is also helping to create the future of well-being programs. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are helping to engage employees in stress and weight management programs, individual and group coaching, and routine health check-ups. Participants can use a digital platform to track their participation, engage with other users in team health challenges and access a VR application for mindful meditation. These applications can also sync with wearable technology to help keep employees engaged in their health when away from work.
Using AI in well-being leverages data to deliver information that’s relevant and timely to each employee, creating better user experiences for individuals’ personal wellness goals. As digital platforms continue to evolve, more real-time user data will enable a more personalized wellness experience that will be more engaging for employees.
The workplace environment can also positively influence health and well-being, employee satisfaction and performance. More employers are taking note of this with additions of standing desks, collaborative spaces and healthier food options.
With a greater understanding of what drives participation, tailored components that support lasting change, and the incorporation of technology elements that empower employees to take action, well-being programs continue to evolve. The need to reduce health care costs and improve productivity will always be a key priority to employers. But as more studies show the value of employee engagement, supportive company cultures and the role of holistic health, well-being programs take on a bigger role in shaping the workplace of tomorrow.
David Klasnick is senior vice president of client services at StayWell. StayWell provides health management solutions, patient education, and health services and support. David may be contacted at [email protected].
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