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Company wellness programs are broken, here's a potential fix

Is an employee wellness program that works actually possible? Yes, if companies start to look at the whole person and focus on specific diseases, according to a new survey.

Company wellness programs are broken, here's a potential fix

Today's company wellness programs aren't making anyone healthier or lowering insurance premiums, and more than half of employees can't be bothered to use them. Those sobering findings are from a new survey by Willis Towers Watson of 687 employers in the United States representing 11.4 million employees.

At a time when hiring and employee retention are challenging, a compelling company wellness program can be a useful tool, but unfortunately, most miss the mark, said Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., national co-leader of Willis Towers Watson's health management practice. "We've had a long experience of traditional wellness programs promising to make a population healthier and to lower overall medical costs, but we're not delivering on either," Levin-Scherz said. "At the same time, company wellness programs aren't actually delighting employees; they're exasperating them. It's a problem."

The old-style company wellness program, where employees fill out a health screening form and get vital signs taken in return for some financial compensation, really didn't work, Levin-Scherz explained, but the move to handing an employee a wearable isn't sufficient either. In fact, the survey found only 32% of employees felt their employers' efforts actually helped in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. It's time for a change, Levin-Scherz said.

"We see an evolution toward more integrated well-being programs," he said. "It's not just physical well-being, but emotional, financial and social well-being too. [Employees] spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else, so making sure the workplace itself is healthier really matters." If companies do this right and find a way to actually please employees with a comprehensive company wellness program, costs could be better managed, and hiring and retention might just get easier, he said.

Costs could also decrease if companies focus on the most expensive health conditions. Survey data showed tackling specific diseases was one of the least successful for employers, with just 19% acknowledging their program was working. But 48% of employers are planning a program aimed at specific health issues this year, and 80% plan to have something in place no later than three years from now. Diabetes and related metabolic diseases top the list. "The cost can be enormous and represent 50% of an employer's healthcare spending," Levin-Scherz said.

This was first published in October 2018

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