What You Need to Know About Workplace Wellness Programs

At one point or another, we've all made a New Year's resolution to get back in the gym, lose weight, eat healthier, or quit smoking. Workplace wellness programs, which are becoming increasingly more prevalent across the United States, can help you accomplish some of those goals. Many of us are familiar with the term "workplace wellness program." But do you truly understand the variety of offerings that are part of such programs -- and, perhaps more importantly, the benefits of participation?

About half of U.S. employers now offer wellness programs, with larger employers providing more complex offerings, according to a study conducted by the Rand Corporation. Employers started wellness programs for a multitude of reasons, chief among them to combat obesity among Americans and the rapidly increasing costs of medical care and health insurance.

The good news for employees is that such programs are becoming ever more diverse and creative in an attempt to increase participation. Workplace wellness programming typically includes wellness screening to identify health risks, preventive interventions to reduce risks, and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle.

Wellness screenings are often self-administered questionnaires regarding health-related behaviors. Preventive intervention usually involves nutrition and weight-loss activities and smoking cessation assistance. Healthy lifestyle promotion has grown to include everything from free or reduced gym memberships to rewards for participating in education seminars, on-site vaccinations, and walking courses.

But even with all of these activities, participation in wellness programs remains lackluster. A survey of employers found that fewer than half of employees completed health-related assessments. What's more, participation in preventive interventions tends to be even lower -- most employers reported participation of 20% or less in disease management programs. Fitness programs are the best received of preventive interventions -- participation levels are around 21%.

Why participate in a workplace wellness program?
Have you wanted to quit smoking for years? Or perhaps lose weight? Wellness programs allow you to do so on your employer's dime, or at least with your employer helping to pave the way with smoking-cessation and weight-loss counseling, classes, and more.

What's more, according to the American Heart Association, employees say there's a long list of benefits that come with participating in the many preventive intervention programs employers are offering. Those benefits include:

  • Feeling better.
  • Eating healthier.
  • Exercising more regularly.
  • Having more energy.
  • Feeling less stressed.
  • Looking better.
  • Lowering cholesterol.
  • Lowering blood pressure.
  • Sleeping better.

If tackling a nagging health issue isn't an incentive for you, how about earning some pocket money? In an attempt to increase participation, many companies offer financial incentives for participating in wellness programs. More than two-thirds of employers that have at least 50 employees and a wellness program use financial incentives to increase participation, so your company may very well be offering financial incentives for developing healthy habits.

However, there are some perceived downsides to wellness program participation that you may want to consider before signing on. Among the drawbacks employees cite are privacy concerns tied to an employer's increased access to the employee's personal health information, as well as the amount of time workplace wellness activities potentially take away from work. Other critics say the participation incentives aren't really worthwhile.

Who is eligible?
Anyone who works for a company that offers such programming is generally eligible to participate. To make sure that's the case, the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Treasury issued regulations surrounding workplace wellness programs in mid-2013 to protect consumers from unfair practices and to ensure equal access. In particular, the regulations require that health-contingent wellness programs be "reasonably designed, be uniformly available to all similarly situated individuals, and accommodate recommendations made at any time by an individual's physician based on medical appropriateness."

The long-term pros and cons
While it remains unclear how well workplace wellness programs are doing at achieving all of their original goals -- particularly those of reducing health-care and insurance costs -- one thing that's clear is that there are benefits to both the employee and the employer. The statistical analyses conducted as part of the Rand survey suggest that participation in a wellness program over five years is associated with a trend toward lower health-care costs and decreasing health-care use. However, the survey estimates the average annual difference to be about $157 -- in other words, not a statistically significant change.

On the upside, wellness programs have led to higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and greater job satisfaction and commitment. The bottom line? The pros of workplace wellness programs seem to outweigh the cons. Between health benefits, financial incentives, and possibly even improved job satisfaction, workplace wellness programs are worth checking out.

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