A wellness program is a package of healthy activities that are typically offered by your employer or health insurance company. Companies choose which activities or services to offer as part of a wellness program, and employees receive cash, discounts or other incentives to participate.
Activities offered by wellness programs can be varied and may include simple things like biometric screenings, walking clubs or health-based competitions. Companies that have larger wellness programs may offer a more holistic approach that includes support for mental health and even financial health. For example, some programs offer company yoga or meditation sessions, and they may also provide counseling sessions and financial advice.
Wellness programs are designed to help employers and insurance companies reduce healthcare costs. By investing in and supporting the health of their employees and insured members, organizations aim to reduce absences in the workplace and increase worker productivity.
Additionally, some wellness programs that include health screenings may be able to detect diseases early. This early detection would enable doctors to treat the disease both more effectively and more conservatively, reducing the need for expensive care and lowering the overall cost of the employee’s care. The employer would also be protected from having to pay additional costs.
The majority of wellness programs are structured around a lifestyle management component and a disease management component.
Lifestyle management approaches are tailored to support workers who have health risks, including smokers and those who are overweight. Through programs such as healthy eating classes and smoking cessation courses, these employees are empowered to reduce their individual health risks and prevent cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.
The disease management portion of a wellness program is intended for those employees who have already been diagnosed with a chronic condition. Through this portion of the program, employees are encouraged to prioritize their health and manage their condition effectively. To promote this, the wellness program may send out reminders to employees to take their medication. They may also remind employees to attend scheduled follow-ups with their physicians and let the physician know if the employee misses a necessary lab test, for example.
According to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Labor, 63 percent of individuals working for state or local governments had access to wellness program services in that year, and 39 percent of those working in the private sector also had access. Among those working in the private sector, 22 percent of individuals with jobs in service industries were provided with wellness initiatives, and 55 percent of those in professional jobs had access too.
Overall, wellness programs are successful in reducing healthcare costs for employers and insurance companies. In fact, recent research that studied more than 600,000 people at several large companies showed that participation in both the lifestyle management components and disease management components of a wellness program can reduce each employee’s monthly healthcare costs by as much as $30. In particular, wellness programs that offer a disease management component are the most effective. Of the $30 saved per employee, the lifestyle management component was responsible for 13 percent of that reduction, and the disease management component was responsible for the remaining 87 percent of the reduction.
In terms of absences, studies show that the lifestyle management components of wellness programs can significantly reduce sick days. Generally, they enable each employee to reduce his or her absence time by more than one hour a year. For companies both large and small, these saved hours add up to measurable increases in productivity.
Lifestyle management activities can vary widely depending on the size and type of company. At the most basic level, wellness programs will normally offer the opportunity to take an online health assessment that asks for information about the employee’s height, weight, tobacco us, and exercise habits. Some questionnaires also ask employees to enter their most recent blood glucose and cholesterol values, and others include questions about sleep habits and fruit and vegetable intake.
For larger wellness programs, lifestyle management options may include access to a personal health coach who is available online and by phone. They also generally include health education sessions on a variety of topics such as how to sleep well, how to take proper care of the back while at the workplace, and how to avoid slips and falls at work. Other education sessions may be provided on preventing the flu and keeping well during the winter months. Sometimes, lifestyle management components include routine vaccinations that are offered onsite at work, and employees may also have access to a mindfulness program that benefits mental health.
Healthy eating is often the core of most of the lifestyle management offerings provided by employee wellness programs. To encourage healthy eating, wellness programs might offer healthy recipe swaps among co-workers or arrange onsite cooking classes focused on nutritious meals. In addition, workplace cafeterias might choose to stock fruit, salads and other fresh choices, and vending machine candy bars might be replaced with nuts or organic dark chocolate. During meetings, workplaces might swap the provided cookies for nutrient-rich snacks, and any meals served during overtime hours could also be given a healthy makeover.
Physical activity is the other main core of most employer-sponsored lifestyle management programs. To promote higher levels of fitness among staff, workplace wellness programs might start a daily walking club during lunch breaks or create a designated walking route or trail for employee use. They might also have an onsite gym with treadmills, elliptical machines and free weights that employees can use during their breaks.
To offer holistic lifestyle support, workplace wellness programs typically take measures to reduce office noise and require the use of seat belts while traveling in company cars. They may also prohibit smoking outside of designated zones. Some workplaces also offer lifestyle guidance that can provide individual consultations to employees about matters such as financial planning, finding child care or pet care, and assisting with relocation.
One of the most popular onsite health screenings used for workplace wellness programs is known as a biometric screening. These sessions take place in a private setting at work and are provided at a time of the employee’s choosing. Typically, biometric screenings are performed by a nurse or a phlebotomist. The screenings are similar to a basic health check that you might receive at a health fair or fitness center. Some companies require employees to have a biometric screening, and others offer the screening on a voluntary basis. Employees usually fill out a form with answers to basic health questions prior to the screening session.
To begin the biometric exam, the nurse will measure your height and weight and calculate your body mass index, or BMI. Next, you’ll take a seat so that the nurse can check your pulse rate and record your blood pressure. Finally, the nurse will take a small sample of blood, either by a fingerstick or from a vein in your arm. The blood sample is used to measure your blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Biometric screenings can help identify employees who may be at risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease, and these individuals can be referred for additional testing or to the disease management resources at the company wellness program.
In place of biometric screening, some workplaces and insurance companies choose to offer complete physical examinations as part of their wellness programs. As with biometric screenings, certain companies may require all workers to complete this exam, and others may require only those who work in certain positions to have the physical. Many others offer these exams on a voluntary basis in exchange for a reduced healthcare premium, for example. Some workplaces may offer physicals onsite or at certain clinics. Alternatively, they may ask employees to sign a pledge to have the physical performed by their own doctor during the calendar year.
The physical exam for a workplace or insurance wellness program is generally the same as an annual physical. However, the clinician may ask the patient about his or her workplace duties, any disabilities, stress or any other issues that could potentially impact his or her job performance. Depending on the patient’s occupation, the doctor may pay particular attention to certain body systems during the exam. For example, if the patient works in a job that requires heavy lifting, the physician may do extra checks of the patient’s reflexes, muscle strength, and range of motion.
To begin the exam, the doctor will take the patient’s height, weight, temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rate. A thorough visual acuity screening will be conducted, and the doctor will also assess the patient’s hearing and check the mouth and throat for any signs of infection. Next, the doctor may feel the lymph nodes in the patient’s neck to check for swelling.
To continue, the physician will listen to the patient’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. This part of the exam can detect heart concerns of which the patient may have been unaware. The doctor will be listening for any murmurs, arrhythmias or other abnormal sounds that may indicate cardiovascular disease. To hear heart sounds as accurately as possible, the doctor may listen once with the patient sitting and again while he or she is lying down. Next, the physician will listen to the patient’s breathing by placing the stethoscope at several points on the back and on the front of the chest. As the patient takes deep breaths, the doctor will check that there are no signs of wheezing or congestion.
To complete the exam, the clinician will gently feel the patient’s abdomen for any tenderness or masses, and he or she will use a stethoscope to listen to bowel sounds. There will also be a brief neurological examination that checks the patient’s cranial nerves, sensation, reflexes, muscle strength, and range of motion. Urine and blood tests may be ordered to provide additional information.
Even where physical exams or biometric screenings are required by wellness programs, the results are protected by privacy laws, meaning that employers cannot see the data except in certain exceptional cases. Depending on the company, some employees may need to have a physical exam in order to qualify for reduced premiums through company health insurance. For others, no financial incentives are offered for completing the exam.
In addition to online health tools, many companies are now using wearable technology as part of their wellness programs. Wearables, including wrist-based trackers by Fitbit and Apple, enable employees to closely monitor several health metrics and offer motivation to improve these. For example, wearables can be used to track steps, count calories, measure heart rate and clock sleep hours. Workplace wellness programs that use wearables typically provide these to their employees, and the data can be used to track company trends. It could also be used to inspire interdepartmental competitions. Some companies use wearables to track steps and provide rewards to the department with the most steps or most improvement.
If your company offers a wellness program, try to participate in as many wellness activities as you can. Go to workplace cooking classes or use your company’s walking trail at work, and consider completing health questionnaires and having a physical exam. If your company provides you with a wearable device, learn how to use it and wear it as much as possible. Always ask questions about any aspect of the wellness program that you don’t understand, and check for program updates throughout the calendar year.
If you think of any wellness activities that you’d like your company to have, you could ask about how these might be implemented. You should always follow up with your personal physician about any lifestyle or health concerns you may have. That way, you’ll get the most personal benefits out of your company-run program.
Chris Fuller went to the University of South Florida and has worked in the financial sector for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in all aspects of personal and small business lending, from personal loans, equipment finance to cash flow based solutions for small mom and pop businesses, and large corporations.