Wellness Programs Boost Physical, Fiscal Health

In an article in the November/December 2006 issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal, Ron Goetzel and Ronald Ozminkowski conclude that wellness programs “not only improve worker health and well-being but also produce bottom line effects.”

Goetzel, Ph.D., and Ozminkowski, Ph.D. – director and associate director, respectively, of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Cornell University – present six “hypotheses” to support their assertion that employers should invest in wellness programs.

Their hypotheses are listed below:

  • Many diseases and disorders that affect workers are preventable.
  • Modifiable health risk factors are precursors to a large number of these diseases and disorders.
  • Many modifiable health risk factors tend to increase employer health care costs and hamper worker productivity.
  • Workplace wellness programs can positively influence workers' health risks.
  • Improvements in the health risk profile of a worker population can reduce health care costs and absenteeism and improve productivity.
  • Workplace wellness programs, when effectively designed and implemented, can bring about a positive a return on investment (ROI).

The authors acknowledge that there also are “legitimate and powerful reasons why some employers have been reticent to spend money” on wellness programs. Typically, the authors note, these reasons are associated with employers' reluctance to barge into their workers' private lives.

Even so, Goetzel and Ozminkowski state that the “economic business case in support of [wellness] appears incontrovertible.”

Health Risks Are a Financial Hit for Employers

Citing a number of studies, reviews and reports, Goetzel and Ozminkowski detail some of the evidence supporting their hypotheses.

The authors note that the United States “has been witnessing alarming increases in obesity, diabetes and related disorders for many years,” and that 70 percent of the total burden of diseases and their associated costs comes from preventable illnesses.

“Employers pay over one-third of the total national annual medical bill for these and other conditions,” Goetzel and Ozminkowski wrote.

According to the authors, workers with certain health risk factors “are more likely to be high-cost employees in terms of absenteeism, disability and reduced productivity.” They even point to one study that asserts that workers with seven risk factors – including tobacco use, hypertension and overweight/obesity – cost employers 228 percent more than those workers lacking those risk factors.

An Ideal Setting for Wellness

The authors point out that “the workplace presents an ideal setting for introducing and maintaining health promotion programs.”

“Individuals generally spend over half of their waking hours at work,” they explain. “The workplace contains a concentrated group of people, usually situated in a small number of geographic sites, who share a common purpose and common culture.”

Goetzel and Ozminkowski note that there is evidence that workplace wellness programs can positively influence workers' health risks.

Goetzel in 1997 published an article in the American Journal of Health Promotion in which he and Catherine Heaney examined 47 peer-reviewed studies over a 20-year period. Goetzel and Heaney concluded that there was evidence that wellness programs can bring about “long-term behavior change and risk reduction among workers.”

Goetzel and Ozminkowski note that the 1997 study concluded that the most successful wellness programs “offered individualized risk reduction counseling, coaching and self-management training to the highest-risk employees within the context of a healthy company culture and supportive work environment.”

In the 1997 study, Goetzel and Heaney also said that it is preferable for employers to take a comprehensive approach to wellness, addressing multiple health risk factors rather than just one risk factor.

This is the second article in an OccupationalHazards.com series on workplace wellness. Upcoming articles will discuss: the ROI of wellness; promising practices; strategies for garnering upper management support; and whether or not to enlist the aid of a consultant or vendor. In the series, OccupationalHazards.com also will take an in-depth look at Medical Mutual of Ohio's award-winning Wellness for Life program.

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