Many employers are using wellness programs in the workplace for a variety of reasons. The primary goal is often to reduce health care costs, the majority of which are due to chronic illnesses. As the percentage of chronic illness continues to grow and more evidence indicates that lifestyle choices are largely responsible, employers are looking for ways to motivate employees to change their behavior. Wellness programs may provide a solution.
The Problem Wellness Programs Try to Solve
Click on the following to explore why wellness is top-of-mind for so many employers:
- Lifestyle choices drive chronic disease which, in turn, drives up health care costs.
Chronic disease and catastrophic illness make up the vast majority of health plan costs. While catastrophic events are usually unpredictable and have a short-term impact, chronic disease creates a long-term drain on plan resources. Chronic heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes, and obesity are all often traced back to poor diet, inadequate physical activity, smoking, stress, and alcohol abuse. Obesity in particular is a growing concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that roughly two-thirds of all Americans are overweight or obese.* Obesity is a risk factor for many chronic conditions, including four of the ten leading causes of death in the US: coronary heart disease, Type II diabetes, stroke, and several forms of cancer.*
* “Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1976–1980 Through 2007–2008,” by Cynthia L. Ogden, and Margaret D. Carroll, Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, June 2010. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/overwt.htm (accessed 3/3/2011)
- Improving lifestyle choices reduces chronic disease (and, therefore, cost).
The good news is that many chronic diseases are preventable. For example, the National Institutes of Health reports that heart disease is preventable just by leading a healthy lifestyle - such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and eating right - which can lower Americans’ risk of heart disease by as much as 82%.** Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that adults who have smoked their whole lives can gain significant health benefits from quitting; the risk of heart attack declines and overall lung function improves within just two weeks to three months of quitting.+ ** “Your Guide to a Healthy Heart” by Marian Sandmaier, National Institutes of Health Publication No. 06-5269, Dec. 2005. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/other/your_guide/yg_hh.htm (accessed 3/3/2011) + Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within 20 minutes of quitting (Poster). Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/2004/posters/20mins/index.htm (accessed 3/3/2011)
- The role of wellness is to encourage employees to make better lifestyle choices.
When so much of health care cost is driven by lifestyle choices, the logical step is to find ways to get employees to change their behavior. Many employers believe they can help by providing the right environment, incentives, and tools. Further, working adults spend more time at work (approximately one-third of their day) than in any other setting. That means the workplace provides a key opportunity for employers to encourage changes in employee behavior. Ideally, such changes would reduce health care costs while also improving productivity and work performance of employees. Some employers also hope to improve retention, reduce workplace injuries, improve morale, and improve the image of the company.
- An employer’s challenge is finding ways to create lasting change.
Unfortunately, change is difficult at best, and lasting change is exponentially more difficult to achieve. The first step is often education, as people generally need to be taught how to lead healthy lives. To encourage people to understand the link between their behavior and chronic disease, the information and recommended strategies should be manageable, possibly taking into account the employees’ environment and culture. Ideally, such programs would involve the whole family. Changes will be most effective and are more likely to become long-term habits if they are part of the culture of the company and perhaps even the wider community.
American Fidelity Assurance Company does not provide tax or legal advice.