Feature Article - November/December 2016

Healthy Motivations

How Wellness Initiatives Can Lead to Financial Fitness

By Rick Dandes


It's not surprising that the number of wellness incentive programs in America is increasing in businesses of all sizes, given the widespread recognition by executives that driving down the skyrocketing costs of healthcare is critical to their organizations' financial fitness.

There is no longer any question of how or if wellness affects the workplace: Chronic diseases such as depression and hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can lead to a decline in the overall health of employees in a workplace, contribute to an increase in health-related expenses for employers and employees, and lead to lower productivity and more days of work missed. As a result, many businesses have realized the benefits of health promotion, and to curb the costs of rising health care, offer workplace health programs to their employees.

"Unfortunately," noted Mike Ryan, senior vice president of client strategy, Madison Performance Group, New York City, "while these programs have been constructed to contain runaway health-care premiums, and also to foster a more productive workforce by attending to not only the employee's physical well-being, but also their emotional well-being, the result of it all has been that many programs have failed to deliver results on both of those fronts."

The primary issue is participation and awareness, Ryan suggested. There are some wellness programs that have generated millions in returns, he said, but success really is rare. "Employees just don't have a higher sense of awareness about where these programs are, in terms of finding them, what they are offering, and what they are all about."

Some progressive companies, Ryan explained, have consolidated all of their recognition programs—including wellness—onto a single portal. An employee with access to that portal will find it is personalized, and shows all the programs they are eligible for. The companies that have put those types of programs into that kind of environment have ratcheted up participation rates and are on the pathway for those programs to be more successful.

Organizations are also not using positive reinforcement to engage employees in wellness initiatives, he continued. "Many wellness programs still rely on dis-incentives such as charging people a higher premium for smoking, or not having a Body Mass Index (BMI) that is at or above certain acceptable levels. We know from our basic studies of human nature that negative tactics never work, and the punishments and penalties some of those programs introduce cause confusion. They erode trust, they create resentment, and they are really bad for the employer-employee relationship."

What's good for those relationships, suggested Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications, Michael C. Fina Recognition, Long Island City, N.Y., are initiatives "related not only to physical health, but other arenas in employees' lives such as financial planning and mental health counseling." As a trend, he said, these initiatives are proving most effective.

There is no longer any question of how or if wellness affects the workplace.

"The other positive trend in the last few years is a general increase in employer compassion and sincerity," he said. "Today, young people are spoiled for choice and don't stay at jobs very long. Many organizations woke up to the fact that they needed to make a greater effort to engage and retain every employee, not just the high performers."

Workplace cultures are becoming more social, more transparent, and initiatives that get employees together under a common goal are more prized, Himelstein said. "These programs can improve engagement, but not directly. Good health and wellness improves pretty much every aspect of a person's life. The idea is to encourage employees to make positive health choices and have a positive outlook. That improves their overall productivity by consequence. So in that regard, they are still quite effective engagement tools."

Another wellness incentive trend Himelstein mentioned is the establishment of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). Due to those rising healthcare deductibles, many employers are offering HSAs as a way to help defray out-of-pocket costs, he said.