Health: The future of workplace wellness programs

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June is National Employee Wellbeing Month — an opportunity for companies to implement, evaluate and refine their employee wellness programs. An estimated 70 percent of employers already offer wellness programs, and 8 percent more plan to do so during the next year, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Employers are investing in wellness programs because these initiatives can support their employees' desire to improve their health and create a happier, healthier workforce while reducing costs for employees and the company.

Some of these wellness programs give employees wearable devices at no additional charge, helping provide a more accurate and comprehensive summary of the user's daily activity, sleep patterns and other health markers. Fitness trackers – usually small devices worn around the wrist or clipped onto clothing – give users a snapshot of actual physical activity.

Employers nationwide are expected to incorporate more than 13 million fitness tracking devices into their wellness programs by 2018, according to technology consultancy Endeavors Partners. That's important, considering a study published in Science & Medicine showed people tend to overestimate how much exercise they get each week by more than 50 minutes, and they underestimate sedentary time by more than two hours. People who use wearable devices are better able to monitor and hold themselves accountable for their physical activity.

Here are five tips for employers to help improve and enhance wellness programs.

Offer Incentives: More employees may participate in wellness programs when companies offer incentives, which can include gift cards, lower health insurance premiums, cash bonuses, and discounts on various health products and services. Some programs featuring wearable devices enable employees to earn up to $1,500 per year in incentives by meeting specific daily walking goals, while employers can achieve premium savings based on participants' combined results.

Gather Biometric Data: Biometric screenings may give employees a better snapshot of their current health, including weight, body mass index and blood glucose, so offering them onsite at the workplace and at health fairs may encourage more employees to participate. More advanced programs can include connected devices, such as a Bluetooth-enabled wireless scale, blood pressure monitor or thermometer, which can transmit the participant's vital signs to a case management nurse or wellness coach.

Keep Data Secure: Companies that want to incorporate fitness trackers and other connected devices should first ensure the health plan will keep private data secure. This includes using the latest encryption technology, including medical-grade connectivity for seamless and secure data transmission. Management should never have access to individual employee data; instead, the health plan should report aggregate data to help the company assess the value of its wellness program.

Generate Support: Set up a wellness committee with "wellness champions," selecting leaders within the organization who are respected by their peers and can motivate others. Use email, promotional flyers and in-person meetings to communicate the goals of the program. Messages from executives will demonstrate leadership support and may improve participation.

Track Results: Evaluate the success of the wellness program each year, taking note of employee engagement and medical costs. While engagement can vary, some companies have achieved participation rates of more than 85 percent.

Following these tips, including the adoption of new technologies such as fitness trackers, may help employers and employees maximize the benefit they get out of employer-sponsored wellness programs – and improve the health of the company and its workforce.

Dr. Neal Galinko, MD, MS, FACP, is the Senior Medical Director at UnitedHealthcare of New England.


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