Maybe the problem with company wellness programs is that they're in the workplace.
Life, however, is not.
Even the most well intended programs face failure if employees aren't completely engaged – in and out of work.
Yet workplace wellness programs consistently struggle with employee engagement. From incentive-laden programs to punitive ones, the median rate of adoption for wellness programs only is around 40 percent, according to a RAND Corp. study.
Designed to improve employee health while also cutting health care costs, wellness programs can't work if employees don't participate.
"The issue with current workplace wellness programs is that they just haven't had success in getting employees to actually engage," says Nebeyou Abebe, senior director of health and wellbeing at Sodexo. "If you look at what's being offered today in terms of workplace wellness, most programs are failing largely because employees aren't engaged, aren't taking advantage of the programs available to them by their employers."
Abebe is the point person for a pilot project between Sodexo and the YMCA of Central Florida that aims to create a comprehensive wellness plan for workers and their families.
The three-year Communities for Health pilot, which launched in summer 2015, is designed to bridge the gap between wellness programs and employee engagement. The key is in involving employees and their families outside of the workplace to create sustainable lifestyle change, organizers say.
"We have a seamless integrated system that allows the people we serve on a daily basis – our customers, our employees – to engage in health and wellness activities both at the workplace and in the community setting," Abebe says.
Through Communities for Health, employees undergo a biometric screening to assess their health. They then are paired with a YMCA lifestyle coach, who advises them on which programs to join. Participants receive wearable fitness devices, personalized text messages, access to healthy local merchants and are paired with a buddy.
And the program is offered to both employees and their families, who also are covered by the company's health insurance.
"There are a lot of great efforts out there but, at the end of the day, these programs and services are a burden on the employer and a burden on the employee as well. They don't always bring in the family element of it," says John Cardone, senior vice president of health strategies and business development at YMCA of Central Florida. "This initiative is really going to allow us to develop a comprehensive program."
Employees and their families have access to the YMCA's 27 locations in central Florida and a number of different programs based on their needs. From diabetes prevention classes to Tai Chi programs for older adults, the partnership is designed to create lasting lifestyle improvements.
"Most worksite wellness programs consist of, ‘Well, let's give our employees a free membership to a Y – or a subsidized membership,'" says Cardone. "It's really developing personalized programs through specialists in behavior, whether it's on diabetes education and whether it's on diet and nutrition or whether it's on just lifestyle overall. I think those are probably the key determining factors to the success of this."
Through the initiative, the organizations hope to stave off the onset of chronic diseases like diabetes. According to the YMCA, one third of adults in the United States – about 57 million people – have prediabetes. And just by increasing physical activity and losing weight, the progression of prediabetes to diabetes can be prevented or delayed more than half of the time, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say.
That's why the YMCA's Diabetes Prevention Program has two primary goals: to reduce participants' body weight by 7 percent and to increase their weekly physical activity to 150 minutes.
"We knew that both organizations have tremendous reach and we also have subject matter expertise in health and wellbeing services and programs – between their evidence-based programs and ours and their quality staff and their lifestyle coaches and their healthy living personnel and our large network of registered dieticians," Abebe says.
Based on the success of the partnership, the two organizations would like to expand its reach beyond the pilot phase.
"I think the opportunity for adoption is going to be the key critical component as we look to scale this not only outside of central Florida but for those other communities that are ready to take this on," Cardone says.
"This partnership with Sodexo really allows us to build what we would call a framework in central Florida. Our hope would be that with YMCA of Central Florida being an early adopter we can really set the precedence for the rest of the YMCAs across the country to follow."