More Companies Are Turning to Wellness

April 3, 2007
Wellness. Health promotion. Disease management. Employee development. Health and productivity management. Not everyone agrees on what these programs should be called, but there's no debating that a growing number of firms are investing in them.

While workplace wellness is nothing new, Ron Goetzel, Ph.D., director of the Cornell University Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, has noticed that “over the last 5 to 10 years” wellness has become “much more mainstream.”

“It used to be kind of a handful of companies that did it,” Goetzel recalls. “Now we're seeing that it's much more prevalent and a lot more attention is being paid to it.”

Just as the terminology over the years has evolved – for the sake of simplicity, we'll stick with “wellness” as an umbrella term – employers' motives for launching wellness programs have changed.

“In the 1980s it was 'fitness and recreation,'” points out Rebecca Kelly, director of health promotion and wellness for the University of Alabama. Back then, Kelly says, workplace fitness centers and other fitness-related programs were viewed by employers as a job benefit to attract and retain workers.

As the rising cost of health care became more of a concern in the 1990s, “it started moving much more into 'wellness' and [reduction of] health care costs and reduction of health risk,” Kelly says.

And today?

“It's health and productivity,” Kelly explains. Employers now realize that “in order to have a productive business environment, employees must be healthy.”

Questions Remain

While workplace wellness programs are far more commonplace in corporate America than they were 20 years ago, Goetzel notes that “there's still a lot of confusion about what works and how it works.”

Just a few of the questions facing safety and health professionals, occupational health nurses, human resources managers and others who are considering launching a workplace wellness program are:

  • How much should we expect to spend?
  • Should we design the program ourselves or should we contract with a consultant or vendor?
  • Who will run the program? How much time will that require?
  • How will we achieve employee buy-in?

And then there's the million-dollar question, usually posed by senior management: What's the return on investment?

Why Wellness?

Underlying all of the aforementioned questions is yet another: “Why wellness?”

These days, employers' investment in wellness programs largely is being driven by the skyrocketing cost of providing health insurance. According to consulting firm Towers Perrin, health care costs in the past 5 years have increased by over 60 percent. Although those increases have slowed in recent years, they remain on an upward trajectory that, according to Towers Perrin, continues to “exert significant pressure on businesses striving to maintain adequate coverage for their employees.”

Faced with rising health care costs, Goetzel notes that some employers choose to scale back their benefit plans, re-bid contracts with their health care vendors or pass more of the costs onto their workers.

However, Goetzel believes that such steps often amount to “moving money around the table.”

“They're actuarial changes and accounting changes so that the company liability is reduced and more accountability, more responsibility, more payment is borne by the employee,” Goetzel explains. “But it doesn't really get at the underlying cause of increasing [health care] costs. And as we all know, many of those causes for increased disease and chronic conditions in particular have to do with lifestyle."

Spurring employees to make positive lifestyle changes can keep health insurance costs in check. But employers who have had success with wellness programs also have found that such programs can boost worker morale, increase productivity, minimize absenteeism and even lower workers' compensation costs.

However, to reap benefits such as those, Goetzel cautions that wellness programs need to be done right.

“I do think [wellness programs] are a good investment,” Goetzel says, “when they're founded on theory, when they're well-designed, when they have the right staffing, the right components and the right tools in place to make them effective. Unfortunately, I think most employers don't do that.”

This article introduces an series on workplace wellness. Upcoming articles will discuss these topics: the rationale for investing in a workplace wellness program; 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, also will take an in-depth look at Medical Mutual of Ohio's award-winning Wellness for Life program.

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