With health care costs expected to continue to rise, many employers are considering worksite wellness programs to help prevent employee illnesses, increase productivity, reduce health care insurance costs and boost worker well-being. 

Avoiding the most common wellness pitfalls

With health care costs expected to continue to rise, many employers are considering worksite wellness programs to help prevent employee illnesses, increase productivity, reduce health care insurance costs and boost worker well-being.

"Employers are beginning to understand that the cost of not doing anything is pretty great," said Maureen Convey, a Health Coaching Program Manager for Ceridian.

But as more companies adopt wellness programs, a new study conducted by the Center for Studying Health System Change on behalf of the National Institute of Health Care Reform, confirms that the effectiveness -- and success -- of those programs can vary widely.

Convey, along with Daniel Buckalew, also a Health Coaching Program Manager for Ceridian, said that designing and implementing an effective program can be more challenging than businesses realize.

"A lot of companies dabble in wellness and don't have a really good business strategy built around it," Buckalew said. "Many senior managers look at these programs as 'fluff,' or they expect instant returns. So it's not surprising to see many programs coming up short of expectations."

According to Convey and Buckalew, the wellness programs that yield the best results and savings are those customized to the unique needs of each particular workplace. In addition, they are comprehensive, diverse in their offerings, fully integrated into a company's business strategy and culture, and have strong champions within senior management.

However, they said, financial return on investment with even effective wellness programs may take three or more years, as the recent study collaborates.

Interest in wellness programs and healthy living programs has grown dramatically over the past five years because of skyrocketing health care costs. Wellness programs are becoming more popular as employers look for a wider variety of strategies to reduce costs.

Wellness programs also received a further boost from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) signed into law this spring. Grants and incentives to initiate wellness programs are all written into the new health care reform law in hopes of encouraging more companies to start workplace wellness programs.

However, the Center for Studying Health System Change found that the programs many employers are adopting often don't bring about the desired results.

"If you're totally focused on health care costs from the start, you're going in with blinders on," Buckalew said. "If you focus on what's going to make employees healthier and happier, you're going to realize your financial goals long-term."

The study revealed that programs most often failed either because senior leadership didn't view wellness as a key component of their company's business strategy, they didn't examine the areas in which their workforce needed to become healthier, or employees never believed the programs were designed for their benefit.

That doesn't mean employers have to implement the most costly, comprehensive wellness program from the start, Convey said.

"Programs that were successful didn't always start fully implemented out of the gate," she said. "Employers need to ask themselves, 'What's our readiness to undertake a wellness program?'"

Financial incentives can be a strong motivating factor for some companies, but for others, employee recognition can be just as effective, Buckalew said. No one wellness program fits every company's needs.

That's why employers need to think carefully about what they want to achieve from a wellness program before trying to implement it, Convey said. Success and savings can come, but only with proper planning and expectations. And with many companies facing annual double-digit percentage increases in health care premiums, bending the cost curve down even a little can save companies significant money, she said.

In a study online this year published in Health Affairs, an analysis of literature on costs and savings associated with wellness programs found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on the programs, and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent.