Building employee health and wellness programs that create trust

Gary Cassidy

Bring up the subject of health in a casual conversation and people often volunteer that they want to lose a few pounds, join a gym, start eating better, get more sleep, reduce stress, or see their doctor more often. However, when an employer rolls out the same goals to its workforce without employee buy-in, the effort might be viewed as intrusive. Go on to require behavior-changing milestones like weight loss or reduced cholesterol levels, and employees might begin to think Big Brother is watching over their shoulders.

Studies show healthcare costs are growing at about twice the rate of inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that healthcare-related expenses have outpaced wage growth for more than a decade. As a result, employees are seeing more of their total compensation going to health benefits, so on some level they already recognize there is a problem. However, they might draw their own conclusions about the cause of these problems and their employer’s motivations for establishing a health and wellness program.

Moving Employees Past Mistrust into Active Engagement
Start by educating your workforce about the current challenges faced by your organization with actual metrics from your claims and pharmacy data. Below is an example of engagement-inducing information gleaned from a client’s medical and pharmacy claims:

  • 76% of benefits-eligible employees and dependents did not complete their annual physical
  • 85% of benefits-eligible employees and dependents did not complete their mammograms
  • The company incurred more than $200,000 in additional costs because benefits-eligible employees and dependents did not use the generic (when available) or mail order option for prescription drugs

This message can smoothly transition into a discussion about the attributes of biometric screenings (cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose, etc.) as well as a questionnaire known as a health risk assessment (HRA). Screenings and HRAs are critical components of a health and wellness program that can directly impact your ability to identify and measure current and potential medical risks and costs. However, before you can expect your employees to buy into that reasoning and roll up their sleeves for a blood test, they must first be educated and engaged. They are more likely to take a proactive role in their health when they understand what’s at stake. Therefore, an effective employee education and communications campaign might contain messaging that:

  • Affirms that individual biometric screening results are confidential and protected under HIPAA
  • Explains why collecting screening and HRA data are important steps to help employees achieve better health and cost control.
  • Defines what’s considered normal or healthy in biometric measurements
  • Describes chronic conditions (high cholesterol, diabetes, etc.) that are often uncovered
    during screenings
  • Delivers a clear picture of your employees’ health today and steps for improving their
    health in the future

Here are health and wellness strategies for you to consider:

  • Offer a program where employees can confidentially engage with an online wellness coach to target specific risk factors
  • Launch a communications campaign targeting the top five chronic conditions uncovered
    during your organization’s biometric screening
  • Reduce or eliminate copays for prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions in order
    to remove barriers and incent employees to obtain and take their medications
  • Describes chronic conditions (high cholesterol, diabetes, etc.) that are often uncovered
    during screenings
  • Create an incentive program designed to drive participation and compliance for doctor
    visits and tests

When you launch a health and wellness program, you are making an investment in organizational health. As with any investment, you expect to see a positive return on investment. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports than an effective workplace wellness program can reduce average annual healthcare costs per working-age adults by 18.4%. But without a targeted long-term communications strategy, reinforced with changes to your benefit plan design and meaningful rewards and incentives, you exponentially decrease your ability to engage employees and make a real difference. Rewards and incentives include monetary, competition, recognition, premium discounts, and employer Health Savings Accounts contributions tied to wellness activities.

It all comes back to building trust, which is developed and nurtured through a transparent understanding of the challenges specific to your organization, clear messaging, consistent actions, inclusion in the process and the creation of multiple channels for feedback. By giving employees information about the root cause of rising costs (typically their behaviors) you include them as part of the solution. A true partnership based on shared motivations peels back layers of mistrust and brings success.