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As Companies Get Wiser on Wellness Programs, Workers Get Healthier and Wealthier

Says one expert: ‘It’s not just having a wellness program but rather saying that, “We are wellness.” ’

September 18, 2013

Like the vast majority of large employers today, Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. doesn’t have to be convinced that a comprehensive wellness program makes sense.

Yet arriving at that ideal program — one that motivates employees to truly change — is another matter altogether, and the pressure to find a good fit is only expected to build with federal health care reform, said Don Powell, president and CEO of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine, which provides health management programs for major corporations.

“With health care reform, I’m afraid we’ll just go overboard with incentives, paying people for a variety of things,” Powell said. “Yet I think we need to move more toward a system of intrinsic rewards. We need to create a culture of health, which is easier said than done because it’s not just having a wellness program but rather saying that, ‘We are wellness.’ ”

For years, FirstEnergy didn’t have much of a wellness program. One minor incentive they had was more punitive: a surcharge for tobacco users in their health plans.

Yet in 2011, the energy company launched a comprehensive approach focused on improving workforce health, boosting productivity and morale, and cutting costs.

One of the key changes was moving to a more “carrot-based” approach to incentives. Rather than punishing its 16,200 employees for unhealthy habits, it opted to reward employees who worked to be healthier.

Today, employees who take real action — biometric screenings, doctor’s visits, meeting with a health coach or attending a wellness workshop — can earn $20 per month. If they don’t smoke and meet other milestones, such as healthy triglycerides, cholesterol and blood pressure, they can earn even more credit, up to $480 per year.

While the program is too new to measure its effectiveness, company leaders argue that the approach seems to get more employees engaged, and management has increased the opportunities for financial rewards in the past three years.

“Having that increased opportunity [to earn money] seemed to be a better way to introduce it than a penalty approach,” said Stacey Silvis, benefits manager for FirstEnergy, adding that the tobacco surcharge of the past “was not well-received.”

Still, employers appear to be split on which incentives might work best to change employees’ bad choices.

According to a 2013 survey from Aon Hewitt, 84 percent of employers offer incentives for participation in health and wellness programs. Sixteen percent of those employers offer a mix of rewards and penalties. However, the percentage of employers looking to penalties is expected to increase, with 58 percent reporting that they intend to impose penalties in the next three to five years on employees who don’t try to improve their health.

At the same time, research points to the fact that not all wellness programs achieve their goals, and the design of the programs is key. Sibson Consulting’s 2011 Healthy Enterprise Study found that 40 percent of all wellness programs aren’t effective, yet the 60 percent that work can greatly reduce health care costs.

Powell encourages companies to examine their entire approach to health and fitness, looking at vending machines, fitness facilities, walking programs, healthy food options and getting leadership to be more active in health and wellness by also participating in the programs.

Many experts agree that a key to an effective program is crafting one specific to a company’s own needs and goals, rather than a one-size-fits-all program purchased from a wellness company.

“I firmly believe that you need an individualized strategy that can meet the individual wherever they are,” said Heather Provino, CEO of Provant Health Solutions Inc., the health and wellness company that worked with FirstEnergy. Provant encourages an individualized, less-punitive approach with an emphasis on health coaching for all employees regardless of their health status. By using coaches, Provino said employers can get to know the individual needs of each employee.

“You really need a personalized strategy where you can meet the individual wherever they are, whether they’re healthy and just want to meet new goals … or they’re struggling with disease,” she said. “There’s certainly going to be those individuals who don’t want to change, but we have the philosophy that you have to find the right heartstring. Everyone will have that moment when they want to change.”

Surveying employees to determine where the greatest health risks lie is also important, Provino said, because it allows employers to focus on the highest areas of need in their plans.

Meg McSherry Breslin is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.