Feature Article - September/October 2013

Healthy Assets

The New Era of Wellness Programs

By Rick Dandes

Employee wellness programs have long been advocated as a way to help organizations create a healthier workforce and face the ever-increasing challenge of controlling rising healthcare costs. And what a daunting challenge it is these days.

According to various studies, including one from the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins and another from Duke University, approximately three in four Americans will be overweight by 2015, and that number will increase steadily over time. The medical costs of these individuals can be up to 10 times higher and their workers' compensation claims twice the rate of those who are not overweight. Currently, approximately 72 million Americans are classified as obese. As a result, health care costs are expected to increase dramatically over the next decade.

As bad as the current situation appears to be, explained Michelle M. Smith, vice president, business development, at Salt Lake City, Utah-based O.C. Tanner, "the health of American workers is declining and is expected to be worse. About one in three workers suffers from some symptoms of depression; one in four smokes; one in five experiences difficulty sleeping; one in five are treated for high blood pressure; one in seven have high levels of cholesterol; and nearly half have not exercised in over one month. All of these health risks make employees less productive and have helped cause health insurance premiums to double since 1999."

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust 2013 Employer Health Benefits Survey, annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage were up 4 percent in 2013 vs. 2012. During that same period, workers' wages and general inflation were up 1.8 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. While 4 percent is a substantial increase, it remains moderate by historical standards. Since 2003, premiums have increased 80 percent, nearly three times as fast as wages.

"Clearly," Smith continued, "It is in everyone's interest for employees to change their lives and live healthier lives." And one possible means of achieving a healthier lifestyle and a more productive work life is to participate in wellness programs.