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An Ounce of Prevention: Wellness Programs & Lifestyle-Related Disease

Wellness programs can help employees adopt healthier lifestyles and lower their risk of developing chronic conditions

Wellness programs can help employees adopt healthier lifestyles and lower their risk of developing chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Chronic diseases and conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity affect people of all ages.

They’re also the most common, costly and preventable of all health problems.

According to the CDC, as of 2012, about half of all adults—117 million people—have one or more chronic health conditions. One of four adults has two or more chronic health conditions.1 What’s more, a study published in a Yale University journal found that chronic disease among working-age adults had grown 25% in the 10 years prior to the study.2

Employers have struggled with the growing economic burden of these diseases. Employer-sponsored insurance premiums to cover these illnesses averaged $5,049 per individual and $13,770 per family, as of 2010.

And indirect costs of poor health including absenteeism, disability, or reduced work output may be costlier to employers than direct medical and claims costs. A Milken Institute study estimates the total cost of reduced productivity and lost workdays to chronic illnesses is $1.1 trillion, annually.3

Wellness plans for changing lifestyles

Since the onset of chronic illness increasingly comes during a person’s working life, employers are uniquely positioned to have a positive impact.

A workplace wellness program can help employees adopt healthier lifestyles and lower their risk of developing costly chronic diseases. With a healthier workforce, engagement and productivity rise while employers’ health care costs fall. Studies show a wellness program can reduce health care costs, worker compensation expenses, disability management claims and absenteeism by 25% each.5

Putting a program together

Establishing an effective wellness plan is about more than installing a gym or offering free flu shots. Research and planning are a significant part of any wellness program’s success.

It's important to develop a plan that has room to expand and become more comprehensive over time as your understanding of what drives your employee population and your business grows.

To tap the true potential of these programs, consider the following:

  • Establish a baseline: Assess your employees’ current health so your organization can set goals and tailor a course of action. Determine employees’ priorities, and consider what aspects they feel are most valuable.
  • Define goals: Target the health issues most in need of intervention, and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Consider what employees hope to achieve, rather than imposing goals that may not resonate.
  • Set the stage: Without a culture that encourages people to take advantage of wellness opportunities, even the most sophisticated plan is unlikely to succeed.
  • Measure impact: Employers need to determine how their program will be evaluated to effectively measure its impact on employees’ overall health as well as health care costs.

Program elements target specific issues

A program can target a particular issue, or have a broader scope. For example, a workplace weight-loss program would have broader implications since obesity increases the risk for other illnesses, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and some cancers. Such a program might include information sessions about nutrition, weekly support and weigh-in meetings run by an external expert, incentive-based weight-loss challenges, on-site group exercise classes or reimbursement for gym memberships.

While the key to a successful weight loss plan is the motivation and dedication to stick with it, in-person group meetings, where employees can weigh in and get support from peers going through the same process can help. And when these plans are embedded in employer health and wellness programs participants are educated and guided by the program itself as they engage.

In her blog post “Six Common Mistakes Employers Make with Wellness Programs,” Humana Group President Beth Bierbower reinforces the importance of coupling motivation with reinforcement, “People usually know what that they need to do to achieve better health, whether it’s losing weight, getting more active, or reducing stress. What’s missing is the how…guidance on how to reach personal health goals.”

An organization might also want to implement more specific programs, addressing the prevention and management of conditions like diabetes or heart disease. These could involve one-on-one health coaching sessions for employees currently managing a disease. Or they could involve organization-wide education sessions and activities to reduce risks and improve general health, like corporate challenges to climb stairs.

Motivation to adopt healthier habits

While better health is rewarding, that alone likely won't motivate someone struggling to adopt healthier habits. To address this, many organizations offer wellness program incentives for employees who participate or achieve goals. The rewards might take the form of gift cards, insurance premium discounts for those who meet health standards, or special recognition within the organization.

It may take some trial and error, but an organization with clear goals, a defined plan and good sense of its culture will be able to determine how best to encourage its workforce to adopt healthier habits, boost wellness, and reduce or better manage the impact of chronic illness.

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