Do Corporate Wellness Programs Really Work?

Corporate wellness has gone from a concept to a buzzword to a $6 billion industry. Rising healthcare costs and declining population health are driving corporations to invest in the wellness of their employees.

The latest survey results from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that over half of corporations offer some form of wellness program. Of those who have a program in place, 88% say their initiatives help improve employee health, and 77% say their program has helped reduce health care costs.

Despite these rosy numbers, there is still significant debate on whether corporate wellness programs work, what types are more successful, even what constitutes a wellness program. On the one hand, some companies report impressive results from their efforts. On the other, some report low participation, low engagement, and low sustainability.

Part of the problem is that the term “corporate wellness program” is exceptionally broad. It can refer to anything from the occasional biometric screening to a comprehensive lifestyle-and-fitness plan. Corporations expecting dramatic results with a minimal investment of time and resources are likely to be disappointed.

The disconnect between the “yes” and “no” factions might be that simple: The makeup of the program, the way it’s planned and implemented, makes all the difference. So, “do corporate wellness programs work?” The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no. Given the available data, the best answer is: “Yes…if.”

Corporate Wellness Programs Work…If Employees Participate

It’s an obvious problem: your program can only help the employees who opt in, and your success rate will be tied directly to your participation rate. The current numbers for participation look good, but there’s definite room for improvement.

In RAND Health’s study of workplace wellness, they discovered fitness programs had a participation rate of  21%. Weight and obesity management programs fared somewhat worse, with just 11% of eligible employees participating.

Group exercise classes keeps employees fit.That’s enough participation to begin to move the needle for cost savings. But a higher level of participation is necessary to drive more impressive results. According to research, personalization is the key.  A recent HealthFitness survey of over 400 employees found that the vast majority needed a customized, personalized approach: nearly 75% said personalization was an important part of a health, wellness, and fitness program. That customization could take the form of coaches and specialists, or a platform that uses participant data to offer highly relevant, specialized recommendations.

Corporate Wellness Programs Work…If They’re Consistent

There’s no quick fix for improving the health of a population. While many programs can show some results early on, the more substantial benefits come with a sustained effort. Ron Goetzel, senior scientist and director for the Institute of Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, encourages a ‘long haul’ strategy:

“It may take two to three years to improve population health. But if you can get 1-2 percent improvement in each of these areas [lifestyle, nutrition, disease management]…you’d see reduced ER and hospital visits and reduced absenteeism.”

To create a program with staying power, start with a commitment to the marathon, not the sprint. Aim for a program that encourages long-lasting behavioral change, not periodic short-term initiatives.

Corporate Wellness Programs Work…If They Include Nutrition

Healthy ChickPea Salad packs a protein punch.The single most crucial factor in creating a program that succeeds is the one that is most often undervalued: Nutrition. Three of the biggest chronic health conditions in America–diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disorders–are linked directly to nutrition.

The food choices your employees make contribute to their overall well-being all day, every day. Helping employees manage these decisions can have a major impact on their overall health and level of healthcare utilization.

Industrial engine company Cummins Inc. revamped their wellness initiative to focus on nutrition, adding cooking classes and other lifestyle interventions to their on-site health center. The organization found that healthier eating can effectively move the needle on a wellness program’s success. Dexter Shurney, Cummins’ preventive medicine expert, puts it bluntly:

“If you’re really not addressing lifestyle, you’re not going to move the needle in terms of health…We can reverse Type 2 diabetes with lifestyle. We have patients that were on insulin and oral hypoglycemics that are no longer taking insulin.”

Corporate Wellness Programs Work…If.

Survey after survey shows that corporate wellness programs can work…if they get traction, if they’re personalized, if they include an emphasis on nutrition and lifestyle. To see the best results, it’s important to start with strategic planning, measurable goals, and a commitment to follow-through.

Zipongo is a digital nutrition platform that partners with employers, health plans and wellness companies to reduce chronic disease and improve employees’ health and well-being. We take the guesswork out of healthy eating with personalized guidance that makes healthy eating convenient, delicious, and cost-effective.

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