A Simple Approach to Implementing a Wellness Program
By Paul Bobek, CFO, West Des Moines School District
The stress from the past year has put a spotlight on overall wellbeing including financial, physical, and mental health. As families are now discussing their wellbeing more openly, employees are looking to their employer for guidance and help.
The Future of Benefits Report 2021 from Care.com1 puts it this way: “HR leaders must not only enhance workers’ ability to care for others, but to care for themselves. If they do, they’ll reap benefits of their own – greater employee focus, productivity, and loyalty.”
West Des Moines’s Four-Step Process
Employee wellness can feel like a burden if districts only view it as an increase in expenses and paperwork, or something that takes the focus away from educating students. However, districts that view it as an essential need for their employees are leading the way toward better productivity, increased employee engagement and decreased turnover.
At West Des Moines Community Schools we followed our benefits administration partner’s four-step process to put our wellness program in place. We:
- Listened to employees.
- Educated on current benefits.
- Accommodated changing needs.
- Demonstrated our district’s commitment.
Implementing the program is relatively easy.
Step One: Listen
Ask your employees what is causing them the most stress at work and in their home life. What are they worried about right now? What do they see as their greatest concerns for their future?
At West Des Moines, we used the following opportunities to listen to our employees and get feedback for enhancing our program.
- Placed wellness committees at 15 buildings to promote the employee wellness program.
- The committees identified their top three local wellness events that were eligible for wellness program points.
- Collected employee wellness questions, concerns, and suggestions and sent to District’s benefits specialist.
- Ensured representation from all employee groups through our district’s insurance committee, including teachers, custodians, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals.
- Increased the number and availability of mental health services.
- Reclassified mental health services from specialist to primary care. This lowered the copayment for mental health services for employees covered by the district’s health insurance.
- Added activities in our wellness portal for employees to log in and seek professional assistance.
Step Two: Educate
When employees understand their benefits, they are more likely to participate in them. We were already offering a quality benefits package, but what our district needed was a comprehensive plan for educating employees on the benefits available to them. That’s where our benefits partner helped. They allow our business office to focus on daily responsibilities and ensure our staff are receiving the individual benefits education they need.
Through post-enrollment employee surveys, our benefits partner found that 86% of employees said they want individual support when completing their benefits enrollment1.
Employees need organized, consistent, and recurring education to fully understand the benefits the district has invested in. Because everyone learns and retains information differently, being creative with the messaging increases awareness of the benefits you’re offering. For the first time in history, we have four generations working in our schools. One-size-fits-all communication doesn’t work.
Our partner worked with our district to implement the following communication strategies to help educate our employees about benefits:
- Annual individual employee meetings with the partner.
- Educational flyers, videos, and online materials specific to our benefits.
- Periodic email reminders to use available benefits, such as wellness incentives.
Step Three: Accommodate
Never stop looking for ways to adjust the benefits you provide to meet the changing needs of your employees. A survey of 500 human resource leaders recently conducted by Care.com reveals that 98% plan to expand their benefits, investing more heavily in the benefits that their employees truly want and consider most essential 2.
Here are ways you can accommodate employee needs without breaking the bank:
- Ensure your health insurance covers the whole person. It should offer up-to-date benefits like no out-of-pocket wellness checks, coverage for addiction treatment, and mental illness medications. It should offer wellness incentives for employees who exercise, improve health stats, or stop smoking.
- Enhance your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to include benefits like counseling, resources for caring for aging parents, disabled dependents, and financial wellness. Because EAP usage averages below ten percent, you should partner with your benefits provider to help educate employees on the investment you’ve made in their well-being 3.
- Offer and educate employees about your telemedicine resource. When employees use telemedicine rather than urgent care for less-serious issues, the district benefits financially because the cost per visit is lower than an in-person appointment and employees can visit with a provider on their schedule—including after work hours.
- Consider Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which is a federal program that may save your staff thousands of dollars without costing the district anything. PSLF forgives qualifying federal student loans for borrowers who are employed full-time (30+ hours per week) in an eligible public service organization and make 120 qualifying payments under a qualifying repayment plan. Many companies partner with public service organizations to offer employee consultation and filing assistance. In a time of financial stress, PSLF could be a great resource to help remove a burden that’s negatively affecting the total wellness of your employees.
- Consider financial wellness programs at work. A recent focus group conducted by American Fidelity revealed that one of the top stressors for teachers is wondering if they’ll have enough saved in retirement. Employees often don’t understand pension plans, and many don’t properly plan for retirement. We offered an end-of-year seminar for employees to learn about the pension program, 403(b) offerings, and retirement readiness for state retirement and social security. About 80 people representing every employee group in district attended. Given the positive feedback, we plan to make this an annual event.
Step Four: Demonstrate
Demonstrating your district’s commitment to wellness doesn’t have to translate to dollar signs for your organization. Like most new initiatives, there are upfront costs to the district when establishing a wellness program, but those costs often lead to greater financial rewards in the future such as attracting higher-quality employees and increasing employee retention.
For example, during the last decade, West Des Moines didn’t change health insurance premiums or lower benefits. Because our employee demographics didn’t change, I believe this consistency is due to our strong wellness program.
Figure 1 presents an overview of our wellness program, which runs annually from October through April. It’s points-based, meaning that when employees reach certain levels they receive financial rewards. To participate, employees must complete the annual wellness exam which is worth 500 points. Through the year, a variety of activities and events generate points such as the ability to earn 25 points for participating in a community wellness event. An online vendor helps with tracking the points and providing resources.
Last year, about 38% of both our salaried and hourly employees participated and received financial incentives and rewards. If almost 40% of our employees received financial rewards for participating in the program, that sends a strong message that folks look forward to it, appreciate it, and value the benefit.
A Good Place to Start
Quite simply, your district can start anywhere. Consider establishing the financial reward at a cost you can support and then build off that. We paid out about $140K in 2020, which we were able to take from our self-insured fund. If your district isn’t self-insured, it could be a direct expense to the general fund. Ask around to see if there’s a local sponsor who might share in the cost.
Get something started, see how it’s received by your employees, and adjust annually if needed. It’s an ongoing process, you don’t need to hit a homerun the first year.
Taking Care of Your Employees Means Taking Care of Your Students
Bottom line: Employees are facing historic levels of stress and anxiety. Providing support is crucial for them and for your district. Total employee wellness translates into keeping good employees who in turn accomplish the goal of educating kids.
Paul Bobek, CFO at Wes Des Moines Community Schools in Iowa, has shown success with implementing a wellness program for his district. Paul is a past chair for the ASBO International Advisory Committee, former ASBO International Board member, and is highly involved with Iowa ASBO.
This blog is up to date as of February 2022 and has not been updated for changes in the law, administration or current events.