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Alternatives to Workplace Wellness Programs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Courtney Haun
June 22, 2018

Statement of the Issue

In the U.S., health issues such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes take a toll on the workplace and ultimately the economy. To combat, many organizations have created wellness programs to incentivize their employees to adopt healthier behaviors. By doing so, the hope is that by internalizing healthy behaviors in the workplace, it will increase productivity, decrease sick days and lead to a more positive work environment. In addition to wellness programs, there are other beneficial alternatives that employers can utilize to improve (or prevent) their organization’s health disparity status.

Those who hold employment tend to spend most of their waking hours at the job site. Because of this, employers have the unique opportunity to influence the health and wellness of those working by offering a workplace wellness program or other options. Throughout wellness programs course of development, according to an article be Health Affairs, 67 percent of companies with three or more employees that offer health benefits also offer at least one wellness program. Within the coming years, the benefits of such programs can and will be further examined.

Alternative Solutions

Many employers have implemented workplace wellness programs aimed at improving employee health. However, there are also other solutions that are relevant to the issue. In an administrative role, knowing and understanding these options for employees is important. Programs generally fall into three major categories including:

  1. Wellness/Health Promotion – aims to improve the health of employees by targeting broad health outcomes;
  2. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) – give employees access to personal counseling services for themselves and their family members; and,
  3. Disease Management – targets specific medical conditions prevalent in the workforce and offers screening, case management and treatment solutions.

Workplace Wellness Programs

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention,  workplace health (or wellness) programs are, “a coordinated and comprehensive set of health promotion and protection strategies implemented at the worksite that includes programs, policies, benefits, environmental supports and links to the surrounding community designed to encourage the health and safety of all employees.” The programs are a comprehensive approach to addressing multiple risk factors concurrently. The procedure, policies and interventions are set in place that recognize how interventions can affect behavior change in the workplace, organizational culture and the overall working environment. For a workplace health program to influence health, it needs to contain a combination of individual and organization level strategies. Alternative solutions can stand on their own or be a portion of a workplace wellness program, adding to the multilevel nature of successful programs.

Wellness/Health Promotion

With an expansive scope of health concerns such as heart disease and obesity, a key objective for employers is finding an approach to proactively address the health needs of the largest number of staff. In turn, the outcome is to successfully change unhealthful behaviors, advance wellness, and avoid any illness and disease possible. This approach encompasses the strategy of workplace wellness programs. However, wellness/health promotion focuses on prevention and identifying health issues early to mitigate long-term health issues for employees. Wellness/health promotion is like workplace wellness programs but remains broad in health focus. In many cases, workplace wellness programs encompass wellness/health promotion.

Employee Assistance Programs

Another solution is EAPs, which is identified by the U.S. Office of Personnel as “a voluntary, confidential program that helps employees (including management) work through various life challenges that may adversely affect job performance, health, and personal well-being to optimize an organization’s success.” EAPs provide a broad range of services that include anything from counseling to referrals for additional services to employees with personal and/or work-related concern. Many of these same services can overlap with other solutions mentioned. Working with management to provide advanced planning for situations is also a central component of EAPs.

Disease Management

Disease management is another solution organization could utilize to obtain better health outcomes. In this approach to health care, workers are taught how to manage and prevent chronic disease. With this type of health care management system, employees learn to take responsibility for understanding how to take care of themselves. The system, in turn, helps to avoid further problems associated with the disease or the chance of the disease progressing. Disease management can include monitoring, education, liaison with other healthcare providers and more. Of course, disease management can be a portion of workplace wellness programs as well.

Feasibility of Programs

Research shows that many employers who provide health insurance also have adopted a wellness benefit to coincide with the insurance plan. Because of the advantages connected to the programs, there has been much support from both employers and employees. However, not all are in favor of the fact that penalties are also attached to the individual’s health status an example of a penalty would be a higher health insurance premium for those who do not participate in the wellness program.

For workplace wellness programs to be implemented successfully, organizations will need to be innovative enough to see this as a business investment. Achieving and maintaining health status goals can lead to a reduction in medical costs and prevent poor health conditions that affect the productivity of workers. However, there is concern about the shift of health care costs from the healthy to the sick. The main argument is that incentives are not only applicable in the workplace because some factors individuals cannot control. Another major problem is with poorly designed wellness programs being implemented. Unintended consequences of poorly designed programs could be employees participating without adequate medical supervision because of these poorly executed programs.

At this point in time, workplace wellness programs and/or other solutions have been successful in the realms of medical costs and health status. Based on RAND case studies, in one example of their success, just one year of participation in a weight control program helped employees reduce their weight, with larger result for those who stayed in the program for over three years. This is just one example among others in the literature, providing evidence that those who take part in workplace wellness programs can positively change their long-term health trajectory. For administrators, this gives the potential to exponentiate work outcomes such as productivity and create a flourishing, healthy work environment. However, the negative components of the programs cannot go without notice either.

Author: Courtney Haun, MPH, Ph.D. Student, Auburn University [email protected]

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