24 Jan Business Realities Dictate Wellness Program Priorities

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By Jim Pshock, Bravo Founder and CEO

The priorities of a corporate wellness program seem like they would be clear: engage the population, help individuals reduce risks, and improve their commitment to personal well-being. Most will tell you that a measurable return on investment (ROI) is great but shouldn’t be a primary objective.

I get to meet hundreds of wellness program managers every year and if anything has become obvious it’s the fact that business realities always trump altruistic ideals. There is a widening gap between the well-being strategies at profitable and growing organizations and an organization that must rein in costs or face devastating and potentially business-ending cuts.

What’s most important? Measurable health improvement? Glowing employee survey results? A healthier risk pool? Lower medical, worker’s comp. and disability claims? There is no single right or wrong answer. It depends on the company’s business situation and priorities.

If you take your company from 20 percent tobacco use to 5 percent, but the claims trend remains steady, should that be celebrated? If you didn’t see much weight loss but you know that 10 percent of your morbidly obese population opted to enroll in their spouse’s plan instead of facing a higher premium associated with not completing a coaching program, should the company celebrate the significant cost savings? Or is this a failure?

There are strong opinions about these real-world scenarios. They tend to align with one’s philosophy and role within the business more than anything else. Are employee benefits a right or a privilege? Is a “Cadillac plan” that includes a tobacco surcharge less fair than a bare-bones plan that charges everyone the same amount but provides minimum coverage? All too often, wellness programs are evaluated in a silo instead of in the context of employee benefits and individual business realities.

If money were no object and your sole responsibility was employee health improvement, my guess is that we’d see more personal trainers, company chefs, cooking classes, massage therapy and free services like company-paid daycare. But a company that budgets $10,000 per employee for benefits shouldn’t be compared to one that can afford to spend $4,000, or to one that can afford $40,000. The programs won’t be the same—neither will the results.

I fully understand that small investments can be short-sighted. That investing in your people can turn a company trajectory around and that a long-term view almost always supports robust wellness initiatives. That said, companies facing a cash crunch, a changing market or other dynamics that force short-term profitability still have much to gain from a properly designed wellness program.

Can a company facing a major budget crisis afford a wellness program? Some believe they can’t afford not to. In such circumstances, companies may reduce employer health plan contributions by 25 percent of total premium (for example) but offer all enrolled participants up to 30 percent back if they engage in the wellness program and either attain healthy results or demonstrate meaningful progress in their personal health improvement. This “good driver discount” approach repurposes a large portion of the employer’s contribution toward health insurance and makes it “purpose-driven.”

Instead of just cost-shifting the inevitable increase to employees, these programs create a win/win and finance it completely through the existing medical plan investment instead of through new money that would be hard to come by in tough economic times. Finding the right balance of tools, resources, incentives and premium subsidy arrangements can help organizations that need to save money now, while still experiencing fantastic health improvement results that will pay off in the future if that is what their business reality requires.