Worksite wellness programs building momentum with businesses

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Published: December 17,2007

Costs to provide employee health insurance and healthcare are one of the biggest challenges currently facing Mississippi employers. According to the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA), national studies continue to show Mississippi’s workforce leads the country in battling chronic conditions including high cholesterol, hypertension, smoking, obesity and diabetes. On average, the annual estimated direct and indirect costs to Mississippi for treating these diseases is more than $5 billion.

But Mississippi businesses aren’t just sitting still watching healthcare costs increase each year. They are doing something about it by investing in healthier employees with programs such as Wellness@Work (www.wellnessatworkms.com).

The mission of Wellness@Work is to impact economic development in Mississippi through worksite wellness by creating a healthy population, preventing disease, lowering the cost and burden of healthcare and generating a high-performing workforce. Wellness@Work is committed to the success of worksite wellness by:

• Driving Mississippi’s attention to the value of health and a healthy population.

• Petitioning Mississippi businesses to invest in health and a healthy workforce.

• Building a healthy workforce by offering employers guidance for strategic worksite wellness program design.

• Facilitating employer access to credible worksite wellness resources and experts.

Some of organizations with representatives on the Wellness@Work executive committee include the MMA, Mississippi Economic Council, American Cancer Society, BankPlus and Ross & Yerger. Companies who have participants on the advisory committee for Wellness@Work include Entergy, Chevron, Avery Dennison and Viking Range.

The program started in late 2005, and had its first conference in 2006. Samantha Heard, who works for the American Cancer Society and is education director for Wellness@Work, said there have been several initiatives including a CEO roundtable with the governor. The first year primarily focused on bringing the issue to the table to educate employers about the benefits from worksite wellness programs that create a healthier and more productive workforce. The second-year efforts were concentrated on working with employers to plan worksite wellness programs. And in 2007, the work broadened to get into specific interventions and how to design health benefits as part of the program.

“Our most recent conference in November in Jackson focused on physical activity, tobacco cessation and nutrition education,” Heard said. “We had about 75 participants from the smallest to largest Mississippi businesses. We basically had employers from all over the state with varying industries. Most of the participants have come in the past, so they have built on it. And some people are just starting to dabble in it.”

Approximately 80% of those who have private insurance get it from their employer. “So the employer is paying for the health of employees currently,” Heard said. “And the worksite is a social center of most people’s lives. They spend most of their time there, so it is the ideal place of make those changes. And the actual payers in the system, the employers, can see a return on investment with quality programs.”

Surveys have shown that approximately half of the companies participating in wellness programs are able to document a positive return on investment (ROI). Another 17% didn’t have enough data to calculate the ROI. Companies that reported a positive ROI said they saw lower costs of health insurance and healthcare (or costs didn’t escalate as fast as they would have without wellness programs) and there was greater productivity in the workplace.

Most successful worksite wellness programs have incentives. Those can be as simple as offering benefits like covering wellness exams and tobacco cessation therapies. Another common incentive is providing health insurance premium discounts to participants. Days off and recognition such as awards are also given to help increase participation levels.

Heard said it is important to include all levels of employees in decision making. Have a wellness committee that looks like a cross section of the workforce and not just upper management.

“That also means not just all your health nuts,” Heard said.

Heard said one company in the state, BankPlus, has been recognized nationally for establishing a superior worksite wellness program. It is the only small employer in the country to receive a national award from the Institute for Health and Productivity Management (IHPM), the governing group for wellness organizations

Elynn Fish, who was hired by BankPlus in 2002 to establish its wellness program, is co-founder of Wellness@Work in Mississippi, along with Heard. Fish said communication is the key to making wellness programs work.

“We have several different ways to communicate with employees,” Fish said. “Employee communication is the key to the program and keeping people continually motivated and interested to participate. A good incentive plan to go with it is also important. We have done cash awards and extra paid time off. Going forward in 2008, employees who take certain predetermined measures to take charge of their health will get discounts on their insurance premiums.”

Fish said the program has been very successful in controlling healthcare claims. It has seen an increase in pharmaceutical costs and doctor visits (the company pays 100% of the cost of yearly wellness health screening) but a decrease in hospital visits. People are getting more preventative care such as blood pressure medicine that can prevent a heart attack or stroke that could be very costly in terms of medical bills and sick leave needed.

“It is better to spend more money in trying to prevent and detect early problems than it is to spend a lot of money trying to take care of a really bad catastrophic event,” Fish said.

Over the past five years, the cost of medical care in the U.S. has gone up 68%. As a comparison, gas has only increase 35% within that same time period. “Businesses are experiencing a 68% increase in the cost of medical care, and if you can control the health of employees, you can control the costs better,” Fish said. “You can never go in and say a wellness program will reduce healthcare costs. That is like expecting $1 per gallon gas again. That isn’t going to happen. But if we can prevent disease or detect it early, we get better value for the money spent by helping employees to be healthier. We can not only control healthcare costs, but improve our productivity.”

BankPlus has statistically proved by job performance reviews and biometric data that its healthiest employees are also its highest-performing employees.

Fish said the largest asset a business has is its employees. A business is not going to spend $1 million on new computer system and not put something in place to maintain the computer. The same analogy works with people. Investing in wellness programs greatly improves productivity and the quality of employee’s life. Wellness programs increase loyalty, which leads to decreased turnover and higher-performing employees.

For more information, visit www.wellnessatworkms.com/.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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