Rethinking Workplace Wellness in a Results-Oriented World

By Antonio Zivanovic

While it is well known that health and productivity are definitively linked, wellness programs are a tough sell in tough times.  Fortunately, many business leaders are seeking creative ways to reduce healthcare costs and increase workplace productivity.

My stance has always been, “Take care of your people and they’ll take care of your business.” It was not until the economic turmoil of 2008 and the subsequent slashing of company health services that I realized many HR professionals and business leaders lacked the knowledge of practical cost-containments strategies ensuring a solid return on investment for the investors.

A book I was given changed the way I viewed the challenge of delivering preventative healthcare services to the people who need them the most: the single parent, the dedicated employee, the worker on the fringe of mental health issue, and many more. Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price inspired me to both thrive and evolve; it also got me to thinking about Jell-O.  While it is a grocery staple now, in its early years, the ownership of the Jell-O brand changed hands several times as there was no apparent demand for the product.  What did Jell-O do?  What value did it provide people? What void could it fill?

Well aside from jiggling colourfully in a nutritionally devoid, gelatinized state, Jell-O did – and continues to do – very little of importance.  However, with the right awareness campaign, replete with a blanketing of free recipes highlighting its fun factor, it found a ready audience and has been a staple since. In this light, educating the consumers about the offering of workplace health and wellness services is akin to how Jell-O educated home gourmands in its infancy.  Unlike Jell-O however, health and wellness programs offer more than empty calories.

Good Programs Begin with Good Questions

Implementing effective workplace health and wellness programs first entails educating people. That involves asking questions which lead to more than theory-based solutions:

  • What does an effective workplace health and wellness program like? What does it offer?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • How is the service model strategically linked to minimize health care cost drivers?
  • What are the program objectives? What is the evaluation plan?
  • How much time and resources are required for success?
  • How do (typically reactionary) Employee Assistance Programs differ from preventative healthcare services?
  • How does one measure the human and financial impact of investment in workplace health services?

In seeking to educate people about the uses and value of workplace wellness services, we developed a three-tiered model (see chart).

Adapted from: Chapman L.S. Do We Need a “Virtual” Program Infrastructure for Worksite and Population Health Promotion Efforts? The Art of Health Promotion. Nov/Dec 2006

Accounting for Wellness

One thing remains constant before any of the formats might be considered: the need to establish the ability to report both the tangible and intangible results of a health and wellness program must be established before adopting any program. This involves evaluation planning, data collection, data analysis and a system for capturing program costs.  Put simply, the metrics of wellness matter.

A range of metrics is essential. This isn’t a service-provider issue. It’s the HR professionals and senior management of companies who typically lack the information to make the calculations.

The Conference Board of Canada found that over 60 per cent of Canadian companies do not track absenteeism.  Even when statistics are collected, the errors in validity and reliability in the collection process often compromise the integrity of the results. With thanks to the HR Metrics Service, those figures are now available, so there is no reason to delay; if you are not collecting baseline data, it’s time to start.

The Morale-Oriented Approach

Most companies operate on a morale-oriented basis, offering employees:

  • a standard benefits package of $500 per health service (e.g., massage, physiotherapy, and chiropractic);
  • semi-regular lunch-and-learn sessions;
  • a discount on a gym membership or a small fund for fitness-related items;
  • an employee assistance program; and
  • ergonomic assessments on request.

The challenge of a morale-oriented approach is it proceeds without targeting specific cost drivers within the companies benefits plan: mental-health claim increases, greater use of pharmaceuticals to control hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and the like.

Human resources professionals want to help, but more often than not lack the detailed understanding needed to support effective programs. They remain stuck in the morale-oriented mindset and are effectively prevented from pursuing a more activity, or ideally, results-oriented approach. Truthfully, such programs are great when strategically deployed and linked to business metrics, but in the grand scheme of a well-thought plan, they only begin meet the demands of today’s workforce.

A Failure to Communicate

Robert Half’s recent paper, “CFO Concerns: What are the top challenges facing today’s financial executives” indicates that CFOs ranked three issues as being most pertinent to the continued viability and growth of their firms:

  • healthcare costs;
  • controlling spending and improving profitability; and
  • staff morale and motivation.

While this bodes well for wellness as an issue of priority, it fails to address the reality. Benefit consultants still apply a transactional perspective, managing plans without providing a global cost-containment strategy, with the exception of shifting funds here and there, which is deemed as ‘plan management.’

HR professionals are partly at fault. While they have good relationships with benefit consultants and insurance carriers, they typically renew plans each year, rather than continuously working to find solutions for escalating costs associated with the health of the workforce. It’s vital to provide people with ways to improve their health in tandem with the financial wellbeing of the business.

Evaluation Essential to Results

Moving from a morale to activity-oriented approach is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, evaluation of the program objectives are still weak – and that is the beginning of the end when attempting to demonstrate the value of health and wellness programs to C-suite leadership. Health and wellness programs that lack rigorous evaluation cannot demonstrate their value.

If you want to develop and support a high-performance team, a results-oriented approach will help you and your company’s bottom line. In this model, you develop program objectives and have a rigorous evaluation plan in place. In companies deploying this model, HR professionals are typically exceptional leaders; they understand the need to link and report on services in a cohesive fashion and achieve meaningful results by linking the health and wellness service model with business objectives.

Foundations for Future Wellness

At the end of the day, decision-makers must get the foundation for program delivery right. The next step for leaders is to ensure that health and wellness programs are not just random initiatives delivered sporadically, but services aligned with business objectives and used as a cost-containment strategy to minimize the top concern: healthcare costs. Where this is not the case, healthcare costs will continue to rise without positive changes in site, and sooner than later, the costs will either be passed along to the employees and/or they will see a reduction in their overall benefits compensation package.

Is your program results-oriented? Identify potential gaps to ensure that your program can demonstrate a return on investment when in your next conversation with C-suite members. There are many excellent health and wellness service providers out there, who can help you establish realistic baselines that enable your team to do what they do best: deliver exceptional service to keep you and your company fit for success.

And, as with Jell-O, shaking things up a bit, is the ideal place to start.

Antonio Zivanovic (azivanovic@thinkCOS.com) is the CEO of Corporate Occupational Solutions Inc. (www.thinkCOS.com), a workplace health and wellness services provider.

(PeopleTalk: Spring 2012)

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  1. This is a very good tip particularly to those new to
    the blogosphere. Brief but very precise information.
    Thanks for sharing this one. A must read post!

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