The business case for preventive programs
By Colleen Reilly
Experiencing the rising costs of healthcare firsthand, Nelnet, an education planning and financing company, took an active approach to help lower its healthcare costs. The company launched a campaign that encouraged healthy lifestyle and behavior among its staff, promoting better living for its more than 2,200 employees who are geographically dispersed nationwide.
Determining a Strategy
To understand the landscape of its employees’ health, Nelnet set up health screening sessions at which employees were measured and weighed and had their cholesterol, blood pressure, and other health data points checked. These screenings led to more thorough health risk assessments (HRAs), a series of questions about the individual’s demographics, lifestyle, physiological data, as well as attitude and willingness to change.
In 2008, 84 percent of Nelnet employees participated in the annual HRA, and four major health risk factors were identified: weight management, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and tobacco use. The results of the HRA drove Nelnet to create a year-long wellness initiative broken down into quarterly focus areas: nutrition, physical activity, self care, and stress management. Nelnet hoped to instill the importance of healthy behaviors while educating employees on health risk factors in addition to reducing healthcare costs, improving employee productivity, and limiting absenteeism and turnover.
With a strategic wellness plan in place, Nelnet focused its efforts on weight management. Fully 74 percent of participants identified as “at risk” in the weight management area declared that they were ready to change their behavior. With employees in different office locations, Nelnet needed the right kind of programs to help promote weight loss—programs that were accessible to everyone, regardless of current activity level, and location.
Shape Up at Nelnet
Research demonstrates that trusted social networks can be used to encourage healthy behaviors and sustainability through peer motivation, accountability, and support. So Nelnet partnered with Shape Up The Nation, a wellness company that utilizes online social networking to encourage people at all health and fitness levels to work with colleagues to achieve optimal health.
The social networking functionality of the Shape Up The Nation platform was a key factor in successfully motivating Nelnet employees. Shape Up The Nation’s social networking platform enabled Nelnet employees to schedule group exercise opportunities, find colleagues with similar health interests, utilize online fitness and nutrition trackers, and participate in team competitions. Participants could invite, challenge, track, and motivate one another as they set their personal goals and worked collectively to achieve them.
Nelnet also encouraged healthy behavior changes through initiatives such as hosting company-wide events to increase physical activity during the workday. That included Walking Wednesdays, a group walk by a company executive. The involvement of company executives—including Nelnet’s chief executive officer, Mike Dunlap—in the Shape Up The Nation program also helped to drive company-wide participation and will save roughly $1.8 million annually.
Success of the Program
Simply put, Shape Up The Nation—because of both its team structure and its social-networking capabilities—was a hit for Nelnet. In fact, more than half of the company’s employees enrolled for the program in 2008. Employees who completed the program, on average, walked 8,008 steps per day, exercised 44 minutes per day, and lost 5.7 pounds. Even CEO Mike Dunlap reported that he was exercising six days a week, up from his baseline of two to three days.
Through Shape Up The Nation and the additional efforts of Nelnet’s comprehensive year-long wellness program, Nelnet’s employees benefitted from shrinking waistlines. But there was more to it than that. There was a business case. Nelnet saw a decrease in its employee health coverage costs, most notably in 2009 when medical costs for the company dropped 12 percent. In the three years since Nelnet initiated its organization-wide commitment to wellness, the company has fully implemented a consumer-driven health plan and a robust wellness program, resulting in impressive gains including:
• Cholesterol reduced by 42 percent;
• Weight loss of more than 7 percent;
• Blood pressure lowered by 15 percent; and
• Tobacco use reduction of 32 percent
With more than half of Nelnet employees engaged in wellness activities, it is easy to see why wellness is consistently mentioned as one of the more popular benefits in the company’s annual employee survey. Not only have Nelnet’s healthcare costs been lowered, but the programs have united employees and affected their daily lives by educating them on how to live a healthier lifestyle and providing the motivation and tools needed to make a sustainable change.
Colleen Reilly is the president of Employee Total Well-Being, a subsidiary of Nelnet that is focused on helping small to mid-size organizations implement strategic wellness programs that yield results.