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Wellness Programs: Why, What, Who and How

As healthcare costs continue to rise faster than inflation, wellness programs have gotten a lot of attention lately. What exactly is a wellness program, and how do you start one?   Why wellness? First off, lifestyle choices contribute to many of the most common—and costly—chronic conditions:

Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, causing 443,000 deaths each year. Each day 1,200 current and former smokers die prematurely due to tobacco-related diseases. 

Diabetes—linked to excess weight and inactivity—affects 8.3 percent of the U.S. population. People diagnosed with diabetes have average medical expenditures 2.3 times higher than comparable individuals without diabetes. The American Diabetes Association estimates 7 million people are living with undiagnosed diabetes. 

Cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke, account for more than one-third of all U.S. deaths. Leading a healthy lifestyle — not using tobacco, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and making healthy food choices — greatly reduces risk of heart disease or stroke.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol also play a significant role in cardiovascular health. For example, a 12–13 point reduction in average systolic blood pressure over four years can reduce heart disease risk by 21%, stroke risk by 37%, and risk of cardiovascular death by 25%. 

Employees want wellness programs. Nearly half (48.2%) of employees enroll in wellness programs when their employers offer them, found the 2011/2012 Benefits USA survey. 

What exactly is a wellness program?  

Sponsored by an employer, a wellness program aims to improve employee health by encouraging or rewarding healthier behaviors, creating disincentives for unhealthy behaviors or by helping individuals better manage existing health conditions. In the past, most wellness programs focused on physical fitness. Today, the focus has broadened to include topics such as nutrition, mental health and chronic disease prevention, as well as the workplace environment. 

Depending on your employee population, needs, budget and goals, your program can be as simple as an employee weight loss contest run by employees, to a professionally designed program involving employee health assessments, individually tailored programs and regular follow-up by nurses or other health professionals. Regardless of the scope of your program, it needs to have concrete, achievable goals. 

Who should be involved?  

Getting employee buy-in from the outset can help ensure your wellness efforts meet employee needs and interests — otherwise you risk wasting money and time. Many companies establish an employee wellness committee to provide guidance on all phases of a wellness program and provide ongoing support for program managers. 

Consider recruiting people who have responsibility for some aspect of employee health or well-being already (e.g., human resources, employee benefits, occupational health and safety, the employee cafeteria, employee unions), as well as people responsible for environmental and policy changes (e.g., facilities and operations, legal department). 

Wellness committees also enable you to gain direct employee input on your program. Include a diverse group of employees from all levels of the organization, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, ages and genders. If your organization is small, consider linking with other small businesses, government agencies or local nonprofit organizations to form a health promotion council. 

How do we start?  

Conducting a needs assessment can ensure your organization ends up with a wellness program that reflects employee needs and aligns with company objectives. You can conduct the assessment in-house or hire a health benefit or health promotion consultant. Needs assessments can measure and identify: 

  • Baseline data necessary for evaluation purposes
  • Management and program goals and objectives
  • The feasibility of implementing a wellness program
  • Support for wellness at various levels of the organization
  • Employee needs and interests
  • How company policies support or present obstacles to healthy lifestyles
  • Features of the workplace environment that support or present obstacles to healthy lifestyles
  • Cultural aspects of the organization that could affect program strategies
  • Internal and external resources available for program planning and implementation
  • Current employee lifestyle behaviors
  • Medical care costs
  • Productivity costs
  • Priorities for financial and other resources
  • Needs for practices that address specific diseases and conditions
  • Needs for practices that enable persons with disabilities or special needs to participate in health promotion programs. 

If you need assistance in setting up a wellness program for your organization, please contact Rhodes-Warden Insurance Agency, Lebanon (541) 258-2131, Albany (541) 967-8062 or Stayton (503) 769-7105. 

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