At Bayhealth Medical Center, the cookie has crumbled.
Instead of sweets, employees of the Dover-based health care system are treated to apples and granola bars during company celebrations. There are designated walking trails inside and outside of buildings. Smokers who want to kick the habit can get free help.
“Our whole purpose is to keep people healthy,” says Pam Marecki, vice president of marketing at Bayhealth. “By promoting wellness, we can be good role models in the community, as well as rein in medical costs.”
Rising health care costs have proved to be a bitter pill for employers to swallow, with premiums for company-sponsored family coverage increasing 113 percent since 2001, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Companies looking for an antidote to big bills are increasing turning to programs that emphasize preventative measures designed to keep workers from getting sick in the first place.
“We need to stop focusing on what went wrong,” says Caroline Black, who teaches human resource management at Goldey-Beacom College in Pike Creek. “We need to focus on prevention.”
In fact, three of four—74 percent—employers in the United States offer some sort of wellness initiative, says a survey by Buck Consultants, which studied more than 1,200 organizations in 47 countries around the world. That number is expected to increase under the Affordable Care Act, which allows employers to offer greater incentives for meeting wellness benchmarks.
Globally, 66 percent of companies have organized wellness initiatives, up from 49 percent in 2007.
Employers also are spending more, an average of $220 per worker in 2010. That is a 35 percent bump up from 2009, when the average tab was $143.
The most common offering is a physical fitness program, provided by 53 percent of employers, according to the 2011 Willis Health and Productivity Survey. Nearly half—49 percent—have tobacco cessation initiatives; and 45 percent offer weight management plans.
Companies look to wellness programs as Rx to rising health care costs.
Excerpts of DFM News’ interview with Jason Danner, VP of Kelly Benefit Strategies.
Some programs cost little more than time, says Jason Danner, vice president at Kelly Benefit Strategies in Wilmington, which provides holistic benefits consulting and planning services for employers.
At Kelly, workers brought in exercise equipment that was languishing at home to set up a small, in-house gym. An unused office has been repurposed for prayer meetings and meditation.
“It doesn’t cost anything to set up a wellness committee at work,” he says. “Employers also can embrace wellness by making sure there are only healthy foods in the vending machine. They can bring in fruit and healthy snacks for meetings instead of cookies and doughnuts.”
Bayhealth, which operates Kent General and Milford Memorial hospitals, recently set up a committee to jumpstart the health care system’s lagging wellness initiative. Members came from a range of disciplines, from human resources to nutrition.
“Every time we got together, new and exciting ideas came out of it,” Marecki says. “This is a very committed and enthusiastic group.”
One of the first steps was to literally walk the walk. Each Wednesday, employees began meeting at the entrance to Kent General at a specific time to walk and talk about fitness.
Bayhealth observed National Hospital Week in May by handing out fruit and granola bars instead of cookies. At the Employee Recognition Banquet, the dessert choices included yogurt topped with fresh berries, an option that proved so popular it’s now on the menu in the cafeteria. Each guest took home a package of four plants: tomato, pepper, cucumber and basil.
“We were essentially giving each attendee a garden to grow at home,” Marecki says.
To make wellness as accessible as possible, Bayhealth added videos of exercises workers can do at their desks to the in-house website. The health care system will profile employees who have made significant strides in fitness so that their success stories might inspire colleagues. Workers who have achieved wellness goals can volunteer to mentor co-workers.
Bayhealth also subsidizes gym memberships for employees. And the more often the worker hits the gym, the greater the financial payoff.
This reflects a growing trend. Wellness rewards are advancing at a galloping pace, with 11 percent of U.S. employers ponying up $500 per worker on incentives, according to the Buck survey. The biggest spenders are laying out nearly $3,000 per employee, the study says.
“Our goal is to keep the momentum going by finding more ways to get excited about wellness,” Marecki says.
The most effective strategies are tailored to fit each individual workforce, Danner says. One size does not fit all.
“We don’t want to put a smoking cessation program in place if there are no smokers in the population,” he says.
So how healthy is the typical American workplace?
Of every 100 employees, 44 suffer from stress, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Further, 38 are overweight, 30 have high blood pressure, 24 do not exercise and 21 are smokers. Some workers have multiple health problems.
Employers are increasingly motivated to identify medical conditions early when they are easiest and cheapest to treat. One of the most common methods is a Health Risk Assessment, in which workers voluntarily fill out a questionnaire on their lifestyle and habits.
But how to encourage employees to take the HRA? There are two distinct strategies.
One is to reward workers who comply by lowering the cost of their health care contributions, an approach taken by both Beebe Medical Center in Lewes and Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington and Newark.
The other is to penalize employees who don’t take the HRA by making them pay more.
“My recommendation is to go the incentive route rather than the punitive route,” Black says. “No matter how you look at it, the person who doesn’t take the HRA will pay more.”
In addition to teaching, she is human resources services supervisor of Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, an education services agency for 22 school districts in Pennsylvania. That workplace offers such programs as Weight Watchers meetings on campus and lunch-and-learn sessions on nutrition.
Black says various studies say wellness programs can save employers as much as $3 for every $1 they spend, but that precise results are difficult to quantify.
“Success is hard to measure because the medical claims data isn’t available because of privacy concerns,” she says. “Still, if the employer can save money and the employees are healthier, it’s a win-win.”
Danner expects wellness initiatives will continue to grow as employers find more ways to inspire and engage workers.
The next frontier could be programs that address psychological issues, such as creating an environment of employee respect, says Sue Thompson, founder of Exceptionality, a motivational firm in Wilmington that focuses on the workplace.
“I wish there were more programs with emotional content and I don’t mean touchy-feely stuff,” she says. “I am talking about programs that help to build character, that nurture trust, encouragement and civility in the workplace.”
Thompson says healthy bonds among employees and managers increase collaboration, productivity and job satisfaction.
“Someone who loves his job and feels that he is receiving affection in return from his colleagues and supervisor is far more likely to be a happy employee than someone who does not feel cared for,” she says.