by Leo Jakobson | March 29, 2016

Wellness programs are increasingly
reaching outside the office, as part
of "holistic well-being programs"

 From Wellness to Well-being to Results
"I believe what you are seeing is the maturing of the wellness movement in business," says Rodger Stotz, chief research officer of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF). "For one thing, leading companies are now calling it 'well-being' and are adding additional elements -- for example, financial education, stress management, and life-stage planning."

This shift has been embraced by Virgin Pulse, part of Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Started as a provider of wellness programs aimed at getting employees to participate in healthy activities and measuring the results, it has shifted its focus to "well-being programs that support the whole employee," says Chris Boyce, Virgin Pulse's CEO. "Basic wellness programs are a positive first step. They show that employers care about the health of their people. But this approach tends to focus on disease management over prevention and often engages only a small part of the workforce. Ultimately, wellness doesn't change everyday habits."

One Virgin Pulse client, Ascend Performance Materials, has 2,300 employees in five plants across the U.S., 81 percent of whom are enrolled in the well-being program. But this program from the Houston-based manufacturer of chemicals, polymers, and fibers doesn't stop at the factory door. Forty-six percent of employees' spouses or significant others also participate, which helped Ascend win the top spot in the Houston Business Journal's healthiest employer ranking in 2014.

Those "holistic well-being programs" don't just benefit the employees, Boyce says. "The second benefit is measurable improvements in business outcomes like productivity, employee engagement, and thriving corporate cultures. Participation and engagement rates are important to measure, but the real value comes in measuring outcomes. We work with employers who measure the Value of Investment (VOI) of their well-being programs in metrics related to retention of top talent, worker's compensation claims, safety issues, and absenteeism. These things all affect the health and success of the business."

The GWI's "Future of Wellness at Work" study comes to the same conclusion, noting that "while one benefit of this more comprehensive approach is improved health and better habits across all areas of life for the employee, the second benefit is measurable improvements in business outcomes like productivity, employee engagement, and thriving corporate cultures."

It's vital to understand that these wellness programs take time to show results, says Hart. "You've got to have a long-term perspective," he notes. "You've got to look at this as a three-to-five-year project. Make sure that there's some sort of marketing program to keep it fresh, and there's some sort of reward [model] to make people want to participate. And publicize those rewards. If you're doing it to get results in three months, forget about it."

The Carrot or the Stick?
Wellness and well-being programs got a huge boost from the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which raised from 20 percent to 30 percent the portion of healthcare costs that can be dedicated to rewards.

But not all companies offer employees incentives for participating in a wellness program or achieving healthy goals. Some charge higher insurance premiums to employees who don't participate or reach goals in wellness programs, while others offer premium discounts to those who do -- which amounts to much the same thing.

This is not a good idea, says Mike Donnelly, president of Chicago-based Hinda Incentives. "Well-being is a journey and requires a mental and emotional connection due to the difficulty of adapting the behaviors associated with wellness (regular physical activity, healthy eating, mindful winding down each day)," he adds. "We believe that it takes the support of non-cash incentives, and most importantly the community of people that surrounds that individual, to fuel and incent the employee to integrate wellness behaviors into their everyday routine."


At the same time, a huge award budget is not necessary, says Hart, whose company advocates both formal recognition and points-based awards redeemable for merchandise, gift cards, travel, and event tickets. The awards should be wellness-related, he adds, suggesting things like sneakers, fitness equipment, and healthy dining.

"Make sure you're not giving them [gift cards to] the Cheesecake Factory or something like that," Hart notes. "It's so basic and obvious, but in some cases people haven't thought it through, and they're handing out these incentives that are totally inappropriate. They ought to be wellness-related and create a virtuous circle."