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Selling Wellness to High-Risk Workers

Ten percent of employers consume the vast amount of health-care costs. But there are effective ways to get employees to improve their own health.

November 28, 2002
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Related Topics: Health and Wellness, Workforce Planning, Compensation
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Ten percent of employees consume 80 percent of the health-care costs at mostcompanies. They are the ones at the highest risk for common medical conditionssuch as diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease, and are the least likelyto change unhealthy behaviors. "In order for a wellness program to besuccessful and have significant financial impact, it has to be robust enough toengage that 10 percent," says David Hunnicutt, president of the WellnessCouncils of America, a nonprofit health-promotion organization in Omaha,Nebraska.

The primary goal of any wellness program should be to return the highest-riskpeople to low-risk status while helping the other 90 percent maintain alow-health-risk lifestyle, he says. The problem is how to get that 10 percent toparticipate in managing their wellness.

Ironically, those with the lowest health risk are the easiest to connectwith, says Roslyn Stone, COO of Corporate Wellness, Inc., a health servicescompany in Mount Kisco, New York. "The healthiest 10 percent of the populationwill come to anything related to wellness because it’s a primary part of theirlifestyle," she says. Unfortunately, they are the least likely to need theprograms, and there is little cost benefit to gaining their participation. "Youdon’t need to be concerned about the blood pressure of marathoners."

For a wellness program to pay off, you have to reach those people who wouldbenefit from some change in their health regime. "In order to see a return onyour investment, you need to reach the people who wouldn’t normally joinhealth clubs or check their cholesterol without your encouragement," Stonesays. She encourages her clients to target the next easiest group to reach--thoseemployees who would benefit from a wellness program and who can see itsimportance to their lifestyle.

To do that, she says, you have to be creative and focused. Wellness programsshould be free, convenient, fun, new, and relevant to employees’ needs. Tofind out what those needs are, survey employees with a list of possible programsand ask which ones they would attend, she says. "Be sure that you don’tinclude things on the list that you aren’t willing or able to provide due tocosts, culture, or services in your area," she warns.

For example, she had a client that asked employees if they were interested inon-site mammography. One hundred percent of those women over 35 said yes, butmanagement later realized that the program would be too expensive and canceledit. "They lost all credibility," Stone says. She fears that some of thewomen may have put off getting mammograms in anticipation of the event.

The survey will tell you what people want and enable you to target a few keyprograms for each quarter, she says. Once you know what you are offering,inundate employees--and their spouses--with marketing materials to let themknow about upcoming events. "Women make 80 percent of the health-caredecisions for families," she says. That’s why it’s important to mailinformation to employees’ homes or include it with paychecks. When wives canencourage their husbands to take advantage of a wellness program, participationis greatly increased.

And whenever possible, offer tantalizing freebies to lure them. "Foodalways gets people’s attention," Stone says. "It’s worth it to invest ina plate of muffins--or even Krispy Kremes--if it will get them to participate."

Then, once you put the effort into getting maximum involvement, make the mostof it by offering the most comprehensive information or screenings. For example,a cholesterol screening, which costs $10 to $15 per person, checks for fivedifferent health conditions, whereas a chemical screen, which costs $17, checksfor 24 conditions, including diabetes and cardiac issues. "For a few moredollars, you can get a lot more information."

Hunnicutt takes his approach to wellness participation one step further. Hebelieves maximum participation won’t come only as a result of aggressivemarketing. "Employees need to be held accountable for their health decisionsand the resulting costs associated with failing to take care of themselves,"he says. "Seventy percent of diseases are preventable with lifestylemodifications."

He feels that if a person is going to participate in a benefits package,which he estimates costs a company roughly $4,000 per person per year, thecompany has the right to ask that person to participate in a series of commonhealth screens or a health appraisal. "You can’t tell employees that theyhave to participate in a screening," he says, "but you can make it acondition of taking part in a benefits or incentive program."

To protect privacy, the screens are conducted by a third-party administratorthat provides the employers with an aggregate report of the overall health andrisk levels of the company, keeping the individuals’ information confidential.This way, employees find out which health problems they are personally at riskfor and can get help right away instead of waiting until symptoms appear, hesays. In addition, the company can implement targeted wellness programs, whichare more likely to be taken advantage of because people are aware of theirconditions.

"Employers need to be more savvy about managing their health-care costs andlinking health to business objectives," Hunnicutt says. "This is the firststep."

Workforce, December 2002, pp. 74-76 -- Subscribe Now!

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