Donald Fry — Workforce wellness survey: high enthusiasm, spotty evaluation

By Donald C. Fry

After more than a year of participation in workforce wellness programs, mid-Atlantic companies are still enthusiastic about the benefits but most can’t prove that the programs are making a difference, a recent survey shows.

RCM&D, in partnership with the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at UMBC, surveyed 150 companies with workforce wellness programs. Survey results showed that although 78 percent of senior leadership is committed to wellness, only one in four companies with a wellness program evaluates the impact on health plan claims. This, despite the fact that 72 percent of those surveyed said that reducing health plan costs was their major objective for instituting wellness programs.

Less than 10 percent of employers surveyed evaluated other outcomes such as absenteeism, productivity and disability and workers’ comp claims.

The findings of the survey were presented to the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Health Care Committee, which has been a long-time partner of Healthiest Maryland Businesses, the state initiative to encourage more companies and organizations to institute workforce wellness programs.

The more common method of plan evaluation was to measure participation as opposed to quantifiable savings or improvements in health status, according to David Johnson, senior vice president at RCM&D.

When surveyors looked more deeply into this measurement they found several potential reasons why. First, usually the human resources department has responsibility for the programs. They are not administered from the CEO’s office. CEOs generally don’t recognize wellness programs as significant business strategies for cost savings, said Johnson.

Second, although more than three quarters of CEOs were committed to the programs, their commitment was demonstrated by sending out emails encouraging participation, rather than making the wellness programs accountable for affecting the bottom line of the company. Third, employers often depend on their health plan to measure outcomes.

Eighty-four percent of the companies surveyed did not have an operating plan for their programs or a reliable funding stream. “It is important to know what you want to measure and to measure it,” said Johnson. Measureable objectives include reduced health care costs, reduced absenteeism, and increased productivity.
“The company needs to own it to make it effective,” said Johnson.

Other tips from RCM&D for improving workplace wellness plans include:

• Integrate benefits and safety strategies. Create a “cross-functional” team with representatives from human resources, benefits, occupational health and safety and risk management departments to develop a complete picture of employee health risks and calculate the total cost of poor health.

• Refine employee incentives. Evaluate which incentives lead to the best outcomes of employee health improvement. Examples of incentives could include gift cards, cash, insurance premium discounts, merchandise, or team competitions.

• Leverage technology. Help employees find useful health care apps, push vendors to make better technology available, and work with internal IT staffs to make more resources available.

• Use available public resources. Contact nonprofit health care organizations such as the American Diabetes Association, and employer health care coalitions such as the MidAtlantic Business Group on Health, and leverage local, state and national public health resources such as Healthiest Maryland Businesses, public health departments, and centers for disease control and prevention.

• Identify additional services from health plan vendors. Such services could include online resources, nurse advice lines, and health education programs.

It’s worth noting that Baltimore-area employers with workforce wellness plans scored significantly better than overall mid-Atlantic employers for evaluating health care claims and other areas of evaluation.

Though there is much room for improvement, this signals that employers in the Baltimore region are poised for progress in moving wellness initiatives from “feel-good” programs to data-driven strategies that measurably improve the quality of life for employees, strengthen the value of their benefits, and reduce health-related business costs.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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Transportation funding: will it be a genuine priority in Annapolis this year?

As deficit pressure eases, what will state lawmakers focus on?

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Community spirit: it’s alive and well in Baltimore’s business sector