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by Leo Jakobson | March 29, 2016

Being unhealthy is no fun. Whether it's a recurring cold, a spare tire or two around the waist, or that hacking smoker's cough, being unwell is an anchor around your neck that can drag down your personal life and happiness.

It's not particularly good for your job, either. According to the Global Wellness Institute's (GWI) "2016 Future of Wellness at Work" study, the "economic burden of unwell workers -- in both medical expenses and lost productivity -- is enormous, possibly reaching 10-15 percent of global economic output." In the U.S., the institute estimates that the costs of chronic disease, work-related injuries, stress, and worker disengagement adds up to more than $2.2 trillion each year. Just counting workdays missed due to chronic disease, the cost to U.S. employers is $153 billion a year, according to research firm Gallup.

Numbers like these, along with the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, are why CEOs have been willing -- even eager -- to invest in employee wellness programs over the past decade. In just the last two years, the number of respondents to Incentive's annual "Safety and Wellness IQ" survey who say they have a wellness incentive program grew from about 40 percent to 50 percent -- a number that matches what GWI found in a recent survey of U.S. workers.


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Those CEOs are also demanding more from these programs. Early wellness efforts often amounted to a website with articles about exercise and nutrition, along with links to other online resources and health coaches or nurses who could advise employees based on a health-risk assessment (HRA) survey.

The HRA is now just a starting point, says Peter Hart, CEO of Montreal-based employee engagement firm Rideau Recognition. Originally, he says, clients were offering incentives for taking an HRA because it boosted participation, which was a first step in using the wellness program at all. "Which made sense," Hart says. "But as these programs are maturing, it's not just taking the HRA, it's participating -- are you doing something [to improve your health]? There's an evolution to these things."

That evolution is well underway, according to Incentive's "2016 Safety and Wellness IQ" survey. Just 8.2 percent of the respondents now say getting the HRAs filled out is the primary goal of their wellness program. That's compared to nearly 60 percent saying it is improving employees' health and fitness, and 16.5 percent aiming to reduce healthcare costs (see additional results on page 20).

Nor are modern wellness programs just for people who are unhealthy. When companies originally began offering HRA-focused wellness programs, they soon found they had a lot of employees with chronic health conditions, says John Pierce, wellness advisor for Jacksonville, FL-based Yo-Fi Wellness, which runs incentive wellness programs for clients as well as third-party incentive providers. "It was 5-10 percent of their employees," he says. "Then human resources departments started saying, 'What are we doing about the rest of the employees, to ensure they don't become less healthy, and fall into chronic conditions?'"

 

For one thing, you make wellness programs more enticing. Yo-Fi's wellness programs are participation-based and outcome-based, Pierce says, and awards are given for completing challenges and reaching goals. Its online wellness portal doesn't just contain weight-loss and disease-management advice, it has healthy cooking, yoga, and meditation courses. And it relies on videos rather than text in order to appeal to Millennials.

"A lot of companies are creating challenges [for wellness participants], creating teams of people," agrees Hart. "Teams are much more effective. Why does Weight Watchers work? Because you've got groups of folks together."

It's important that these challenges are not just one-offs, he adds. "You're constantly creating events to keep the program fresh," Hart says. "You've got to create ongoing communication campaigns."