Worksite Wellness


Dr. Dave JohnsonAs we all know too well, health care is expensive. Health
care-related expenses for employers and employees alike are increasing and,
despite reform, are expected to keep going up well into the future. Is it
possible to address specific risk factors such as obesity or smoking to deliver
a bottom-line benefit? The answer is “yes.” Research suggests a strategically
designed worksite wellness plan that cultivates meaningful engagement can
deliver tangible benefits for both employer and employees. By encouraging
healthy lifestyle choices, it is possible to moderate the use and cost of
health care services, improve long-term health and support an environment that
enables employees to achieve peak performance.

What characteristics define a successful wellness program?
The pyramids of Egypt have stood the test of time because they were built on a
sturdy foundation. The same can be said for a successful worksite wellness
program. If the ultimate objective—weight loss, a healthier workforce or lower
health care expenses—is at the top of the pyramid, understanding and assessing
an organization’s needs are its foundation. Surveying employees to better
understand what they value and analyzing available data including medical
records and health care costs help to establish a historical baseline. Knowing
what questions to ask up front provides the optimal chance for success.

With the foundation established, what can drive
participation and ultimately long-term success? An important first step is the
encouragement and participation of senior management to establish a supportive
environment. Meaningful individual or group incentives are a valuable tool to
encourage participation as well as to recognize ongoing achievements. Finally,
just as with any important initiative, consistent communications are
imperative: Provide regular updates highlighting individual or team
accomplishments, healthy alternatives, and helpful resources that reinforce goals
and encourage new employees to join the program. It is critical to determine
the resources or activities that your employees want available to them and
would consider most beneficial. There are many ways to encourage and support
wellness within an organization, but what’s good for one group may not work for

Premera Blue Cross and Vivacity studied health care expenses
and key health indicators for two identical groups of participants from 2008 to
2009 to gauge the effectiveness of Premera’s worksite wellness efforts over a
meaningful period of time. Results revealed that the average monthly health
care cost for those participants engaged in the wellness program decreased
approximately 9 percent or $288. Not only did costs improve, biometric test results
revealed that people were healthier based on measurable improvements in blood
pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides. In addition, according to the
Framingham Heart Study, health indicators that
help to determine a person’s 10-year risk of heart disease revealed the
percentage of high-risk individuals within the engaged group decreased to 9.8
percent from 12.6 percent while low-risk participants’ scores improved to 74.7
percent from 69.4 percent.

The analysis suggests that meaningful participation in the
wellness program over an extended period was critical. If participants were
actively involved and achieved some level of success, their average annual
health care costs were typically lower than those employees who elected not to
participate in the wellness program.

Worksite wellness is not a panacea. Launching and
maintaining a successful worksite wellness solution can be a challenge for
large companies in multiple states or, alternatively, small companies with only
one location but limited resources. However, in both cases, research suggests a
tailored strategy that embraces an organization’s culture can result in
tangible financial as well as health-related benefits. The outcome can be a
statistically relevant piece of the health care puzzle that reduces absenteeism
and increases productivity by improving employee health while helping to
control the steady increase of health care costs. 

Dave Johnson, MD, is president of Vivacity, a worksite wellness company. Previously, he was Premera’s
regional medical director in Spokane and has an extensive background working
with health care plans in disease, health risk management and wellness.