For small-business owners inundated with the tasks of expanding, employee wellness is often far down the list of things to consider. But whether you have five employees or 5,000, paying attention to workers’ general health and helping people prevent or manage disabilities can pay off.
That was the theme at the Integrated Benefits Institute’s annual forum held recently in San Francisco, where more than 400 benefits directors and chief medical officers from companies large and small traded ideas about managing workers’ health, productivity and absences.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be a heavy lift. By keeping activities fun for participants, small businesses often find they can weave wellness into their existing health and safety infrastructure, said Karen Curran, director of health risk management for Pinnacol Assurance, which sells workers' compensation insurance to 55,000 policyholders in Colorado.
Given an aging population and growing obesity nationwide, health risk factors and chronic medical conditions are putting more small companies at risk for high costs, Curran said: “If we’re going to move the needle, we’ve got to help the small guys.” Small businesses are especially well-positioned to launch homegrown programs because they know their culture and what motivates their people.
Employers can promote stop-smoking and nutrition classes, biometric screenings that help people monitor their blood pressure and cholesterol, and health-risk assessments by making them “more like recess than a spelling test,” Curran said. In a weight-loss challenge, for example, measuring results by teams’ total pounds shed can defuse the pressure individuals may feel to drop weight. “It’s camaraderie. It’s kickball on the playground, not ‘You have to do this or you’re going to be punished.’”
A variety of wellness offerings and incentives can work, from replacing office candy bowls with fruit to staging team-based physical activity contests, conference panelists said. But having a single-minded focus on return on investment is often self-defeating.
Catching Problems Early
Yoga classes during lunch, smoking-cessation help and biometric screenings are among the offerings at Flood & Peterson Insurance, Chief Executive Mike Butler said during a presentation. Flood & Peterson is a Pinnacol client and broker that has 115 employees at three sites in Colorado.
Through biometric screenings, two employees were found to have life-threatening illnesses and entered treatment, which was covered by the company’s health plan, he said. “The flip side is our health costs went up in the next few years,” Butler said. “We want to be known as an employer who cares about our employees, so we were prepared to make that investment.”
The wellness program has brought gains that don’t show up right away on the company’s balance sheet, he said. “We’ve seen significant improvement from the cultural standpoint and morale standpoint, but not on ROI. That takes time.”
Workers used to adhering to safety guidelines through a workers’ compensation program can be more receptive to wellness initiatives than those who are introduced through their health-insurance plans, since workers tend to associate privacy fears with the latter, said Curran of Pinnacol.
“We’ve got to look at the whole person, not just the short-term disability,” she said. Unlike most workers’ compensation insurers, Pinnacol offers assistance to small businesses that also want a worksite wellness program.
Workers’ comp carriers increasingly have an incentive to take wellness seriously, because claimants’ health status plays into how long it takes them to recover from a work injury. A restaurant worker with uncontrolled diabetes who cuts his finger in the kitchen, for example, may have complications that keep him off the job and accruing health costs for a long time.
Making it Social
Paychex, a Rochester, N.Y.-based company that’s self-insured with 12,500 employees across more than 100 locations, has been active in employee wellness for 15 years, Bob Merberg, wellness program manager, said at the conference. Paychex has had biometric screening, health coaching and health-risk assessments since 2000, and integrated cash incentives built into its medical benefits since 2008. Recently it has played down financial incentives in its promotions, focusing on the idea that “better health is the best reward.”
Worker-wellness initiatives often increase costs in the short term; the hope is that they’ll pay off in lower medical bills and fewer chronic diseases down the line.
Last year, Paychex joined with ShapeUp, a Providence, R.I.-based social wellness firm, to launch ShapeUp Paychex, a host of activities including a team-based six-week challenge and three eight-week challenges. More than 5,000 employees registered in the first three weeks.
“We believe in the power of social networks to spread health,” Merberg said. “Our focus is to help make employees as healthy as possible and make Paychex a great place to work.” Using a social platform, workers tracked their steps and exercise minutes with different wireless devices and pedometers. They were also encouraged to create their own one-on-one challenges and to “gift” some of their successes to teammates who needed reinvigorating.
“It’s really about helping people achieve their life goals,” said Rajiv Kumar, chief executive and founder of ShapeUp. The company, which taps social networking, gaming and behavioral economics to engage workers, also tailors a wellness program to employers with fewer than 5,000 workers.
Company officers may design the program, but in many cases it’s more effective if workers recruit each other, Kumar said. “The majority of people come because they’re invited by peers, not by [human resources].” Survey data seem to confirm that the wellness program is hitting its target, with 65% of Paychex employees reporting that their health has improved since starting and 73% saying they feel more valued at work.
Another hot topic among conference speakers was obesity. Many employers have been concerned since the American Medical Association changed its policy last June to recognize obesity as a disease. Les Kertay, vice president and chief medical officer for Lincoln Financial Group, said requests for on-the-job accommodations are likely to increase. “But that could be a really good thing, because we often forget that requests for accommodation [are] designed to keep people at work,” he said.
For conference attendee Tanya Barham, who gave a presentation about wellness results in Multnomah County, Ore., which includes Portland, a highlight of the conference was the importance of communications. “It was interesting to hear that despite all the regulation, gizmos and doodads, the most effective means for driving changes in productivity and health are well-executed messaging, project management and outreach,” Barham said in an email.
Getting company leaders engaged and believing in wellness was the takeaway message for consultant and conference attendee Megan Buzbee, who said agreeing on how to define success is critical.
“That whole conversation of ROI stops a lot of people,” Buzbee said. “Usually it takes three to five years to measure ROI, but it’s impacting [other things], changing the conversation to value of investment and not just return on investment.”
Kristen Gerencher is a reporter for MarketWatch in San Francisco. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.