Wellness Is Mainstream, Benefiting the Employer and the Worker

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Oct 9, 2017

If you suspect wellness is something of a fad benefit, just a few minutes of walking around at the Employer Healthcare & Benefits Congress that ended last week would have disabused you of that thinking.

It seemed like every other vendor in the massive exhibit hall was directly involved in promoting one or another wellness program or was positioning their product or service as connected to wellness. A leaflet from one of the handful of genetic testing companies at the show headlined, “Is wellness in your company’s DNA?”

The conference agenda, too, was replete with discussions of wellness issues. Here’s a small sample: “Are Your Employees Stressed Out & Losing Sleep?”; “A Fresh Approach to Biometric Screenings: Activate the Employee’s Ownership of Health”; “Power of the People: Empowering Wellness Champions to Take Your Wellness Program to the Next Level.”

Even when the session didn’t specifically deal with wellness, it became part of the conversation. In fact, in a session so popular every seat was taken and half again as many people were standing, the panelists talked illness prevention and fitness as a way of controlling costs. The session itself was entitled “Innovations in Self Funding & Employer Plans,” so there was plenty of conversation about service delivery, targeted medicine and partnering among self-funded employers. Yet wellness – prevention – was a sub-text.

Wellness and Engagement

In fact in another well-attended session — “Engaging Millennials Will Take More than Instagram” — you could be forgiven if you came away thinking the secret engagement tool was wellness. That included talk of financial wellness and, as Jae Kullar of Delta Air Line described it, “social wellness.” Wellness, while doing good, is how I remember her describing it.

Hallmark, the card company and not the first name that comes to mind when discussing millennials, promotes wellness with onsite medical services, healthy snacks, and a social center, said Sally Luck, the HR director, Corporate Services and Wellness. Hallmark has “a wellness culture,” Luck said, that goes back three decades.

The San Francisco fintech company Square, which is almost 70% millennial, has an onsite wellness center with chiropractic services, massages, and wellness counseling. It’s also putting a special focus on mental health, working to reduce employee stress at the fast-growing, fast-paced company, explained Medha Rishi, head of Global Benefit, Global Mobility and International HR Operations. Not a surprise for a company that can still rightly be described as a start-up that massages are the most used benefit.

The Wellness Value

All this emphasis on wellness is not simply a recruiting and retention tool. It is that, but there’s a larger benefit and that is controlling healthcare costs. This is especially important to employers who self-fund, though a healthy, fit workforce has measurable benefits for all employers: less absenteeism, a reduction in medical premiums and costs, fewer doctor visits, not to mention the less tangible benefit of improved health.

Not every company can afford to provide an onsite wellness center with a range of services and enough equipment to make it a real fitness facility. Square, located in one of the priciest real estate areas of the country, is banding together with some of its neighbors to open a “near site” center to provide more space and services and free up the onsite space for company expansion.

Wellness On a Tight Budget

An HR director I talked with at the conference said her budget didn’t allow for a physical center, so her wellness committee came up with effective, low cost alternatives. They bought a bicycle storage shed to encourage bicycle commuting; now there’s a regular group who leave bikes at work and pedal during their lunch hour. Another group of lunch time walkers created a weekly steps counting contest. Donuts are banned at meetings in favor of fruit, granola and yogurt. And a group of hikers now monthly sponsor treks into the area mountains.

How did this come about? It took some work, she conceded. Employees were asked about their fitness activities and groups were created on the internal network that coincided with their interests. An existing group of lunchtime walkers was persuaded to allow new participants. When it grew too large, smaller groups split off. They groups developed the steps contest on their own.

The biggest expense, where the company spends its small wellness budget, is a three time a year health fair. Free basic medical tests are conducted, and wellness counselors meet individually with employees to discuss the results and offer suggestions.

After each of these fairs, another few employees begin participating in one of the groups.

Though the company hasn’t seen any savings on the medical plans, absenteeism has declined and managers say they’ve noticed a more positive attitude in the workforce.