Snapshots of wellness programs that work.
By Heather A. Provino
Wellness has been a popular buzzword in recent years. Yet programs have had to overcome hurdles—lack of participation, lack of funding—to earn their right as a standard in organizations’ benefits package. Several large firms have reaped the benefits of a successful wellness program and have tasked themselves to take it to the next level. How? Developing new efforts to address growing health risks, expanding participation to dependents, and greater incentives are a few solutions.
For the City of Charlotte, wellness has come a long way since 2004. Eight years ago the focus was finding the right mix of offerings while combating internal perceptions of wellness as a fleeting HR initiative. Fast forward to today and the City’s Wellness Works program supplies a full range of wellness benefits to more than 6,500 employees, including biometric screenings, flu vaccinations, health coaching, tobacco cessation, diabetes management, onsite fitness facilities, and health challenges among others. Christina Fath, the City’s wellness coordinator, says a current initiative is to bolster its wellness efforts with spouses and retirees.
“We recognize that to contain healthcare costs we must go beyond employees,” she explains. “With dependents and non-Medicare eligible retirees on our health plan, our focus has begun to shift to how we reach these important groups.”
Charlotte is not alone. Wellness has evolved in a similar way at United Natural Foods (UNFI), a national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods—even overcoming a logistical challenge. The company has more than 6,000 employees at 40 locations, including distribution centers, retail stores, and sales teams across North America. Since launching a robust wellness program companywide in 2010, UNFI plans to leverage the momentum it has built with employees to encourage spousal participation. “Today, we see our associates are more engaged and we have bona fide wellness champions and success stories,” says UNFI’s Deirdre Mendenhall, director of benefits, compensation, and HRIS. “This year, we are encouraging spouses and domestic partners to participate, at no cost, in our wellness program on a voluntary basis.” Like employees, spouses and partners will have access to biometric screenings, paper or online HRAs, healthy eating workshops, and an online tool that develops personalized wellness plans. “We know that support at the workplace and at home are critical to success in achieving good health,” she adds.
Golden Living’s Chief Human Resources Officer Michael Karicher agrees. His organization, a family of companies providing recovery, long-term care, short-term therapy, home health, and hospice care throughout the United States, is also beginning its efforts to reach beyond the workplace. “A good support system at work and at home is essential to staying on the road to good health. So this year, we are encouraging spouses and dependents to participate in biometric screenings to learn more about their own state of health,” says Karicher, whose 42,000 colleagues have access to many wellness offerings, including weight loss, tobacco cessation and disease management programs.
Initiatives to Tailor and Incent
UNFI is piloting specific efforts aimed at overcoming two top health risk factors: poor nutrition and tobacco use. Additionally, UNFI is taking steps to deliver healthy eating options to its employees. “Last year we increased our associate for our own natural and organic products to encourage associates to buy and prepare healthy and low-cost meals for their families or school lunches and snacks for their kids,” explains Mendenhall. “This year we are piloting an Apple a Day program, which will provide healthy foods onsite, such as fruit, at a lower cost than unhealthy snacks.”
For tobacco cessation, she says the company so strongly supports getting employees tobacco-free that engaging in a tobacco cessation program—either online or by telephone—is now a requirement in order for associates to avoid higher cost sharing with UNFI’s medical plan.
Golden Living is considering ways to take its incentive programs to another level. Over the last year, the company saw employees improve their metrics: cholesterol levels and blood glucose/HbA1c levels. Those who improved their health received higher company contributions to their health reimbursement accounts and caps on their out-of-pocket expenses, depending on specific plan. “In the future, we would like to add more rewards, such as a rebate on premiums for employees who improve their health,” says Karicher.
The City of Charlotte has launched a benefits integrated incentive program since more than half of Charlotte’s workforce does not get an annual physical and an equal number have at least one chronic condition. The goal of the program is to provide all employees with a snapshot of their health then connect them to resources that can make improvements, says Fath. “All employees now receive one-on-one health coaching at the screening, which gives them immediate feedback about results, provides a teachable moment, and serves as a referral opportunity for other appropriate wellness/benefits offerings,” she says. “Ultimately, we took a program that had three separate components and combined them so that employees can see how each component is related and the importance of participating in each. From the employee’s perspective, it’s no longer three things I have to do to get my incentive.”
The Value of a Wellness Partner
Each of the organizations didn’t approach their wellness initiatives alone. They looked to Provant Health Solutions for various reasons. “By working with a wellness provider, not only are we able to provide quality, comprehensive programming to our population, but we are also able to work as a team to develop, implement, and grow the wellness program,” says Fath, who notes that the City is in a second-generation relationship after a disappointing experience with a previous vendor that caused widespread employee dissatisfaction. “[Our new wellness vendor] understands where our wellness program has been … they are as invested in the success of the program as the City is. It’s not about just selling us a service.”
For UNFI, the decision to outsource was a combination of core competencies, cost efficiencies, and privacy assurance not being available in-house. “By partnering with an independent wellness company, our associates knew that there was a separation between their employer and their personal health information—a trust that was paramount to the program’s success,” says Mendenhall. “We also knew that it was not financially feasible for UNFI to hire its own registered nurses, dietitians, and the other health experts needed to implement this kind of comprehensive program. We determined that we needed an experienced wellness provider to leverage best practices already in place at other companies.”
Communication and promotion of wellness was key for Golden Living. “[Our wellness provider] has been a tremendous partner, working with us on planning and executing screenings for employees in more than 400 locations,” says Karicher of Golden Living. “One example is the provider’s communication tools that educate our employees about our wellness incentive and comprehensive wellness resources, and keep our employees engaged in the program. They took a complex incentive program, which featured a wide range of benefits and made it easier for employees to understand.”
Success of Wellness
Measuring a return on investment for wellness programs is often approached in a holistic manner. But numbers can also prove a real different.
“Our employees’ overall health, which is the primary focus of our wellness program, is improving,” says Karicher. “Their health scores from biometric screenings are getting better, along with a decrease in the number of health insurance claims. The reduction in claims has resulted in our health insurance costs bending the trend – our rate increase this year is 4 to 5 percent, which is roughly half the national average.”
While impressive, this is not without its efforts. “An effective wellness program does not happen overnight,” he continues. “Come up with a strategy, put something in place and review the results. Some years your program may take bigger leaps and some years it may just need tweaks. The results of our wellness program point to the fact that if your employees’ health improves, your bottom line will improve too.”
Heather Provino is the chief executive officer of Provant Health Solutions, a national provider of health and wellness services.
Tips For Vetting Wellness Providers
Our experts offer their advice:
Learn about programs that didn’t work. “Ask the vendor to provide a list of references for clients that terminated their program,” says Christina Fath, the City of Charlotte’s wellness coordinator. “It can help you learn more about the vendor’s weaknesses and how they responded to the client’s challenges.”
Execution, personalization, and accountability matter. “Look for a vendor that has experience in worksite wellness programs; will work with you to develop a customized program that meets your employee population’s health needs and culture; will work with other wellness vendors, if you have them; and will provide regular metrics for your program,” advises Michael Karicher, CHRO of Golden Living.
Know what you want. “Have a clear idea of what you want your program to look like,” adds Fath. “There are as many vendors out there that sell wellness, as there are definitions of wellness. Wellness is a buzzword right now and so many people are trying to cash in on it. So it’s important to know what you want so you can weed out all of the other sales pitches that may sound good, but aren’t [from] legitimate, outcomes based health promotion vendors.”