In employer wellness program circles, there is wide, ongoing discussion around these questions: “What does wellness mean?” “Why and how should employers invest in it?” and “What business value can it generate?”
It’s not surprising that the industry focuses so heavily on the employer perspective. Wellness program decisions are business decisions. This means (among other things) that program effectiveness must be judged by the impact on company performance. Strong wellness programs lead to better results, and poor choices or execution harm businesses just as much as any failed equipment purchase of equal size does.
From an employer perspective, we look for positive return (or value) on investment. Lower healthcare spending. Better attendance and productivity. Safety improvements. Lower turnover, lower recruiting costs and better job candidates. Competition is tough everywhere, and companies typically expect a tangible return within the same horizon as with any other investment—often within three to five years. Poor wellness investments harm competitiveness and can put jobs at risk. Great programs can support great company performance.
While we’re giving very valid attention to the value that wellness programs bring to employers, it can be easy to forget the potential these programs have to help real human beings. I’m not talking about the long-term, seemingly intractable ballooning of national healthcare spending (though it’s a very critical fact). I’m talking about how we and our loved ones experience our daily lives, and especially the future lives we’re arranging for ourselves.
Consider my case. Fatherhood is my most important job. My daughter was born when I was 39 years old, so I’ll be 57 at her high school graduation and 61 at college graduation. If my wife and I are lucky enough to experience grandkids, they might not arrive until we hit our 70’s. I want to enjoy my family at that age, and I want to be useful to them. But I know:
- About 15% of people my age don’t make it to 65. My father didn’t live that long.
- According to the US Census (He & Larsen, 2014), 26% of people 65-74 have at least one disability (significant difficulty with hearing, vision, cognition, walking or climbing stairs, self-care, or living independently). Half of these people have more than one disability.
- 45% of those aged 75-84 have at least one disability, and 26% have multiple disabilities.
For an old dad, these are tough facts to face, but it won’t do me any good to ignore them. Regardless of where the risks come from and how they arise, research insists that I can influence my own future health and well-being.
I know what it takes to be healthy. Most of us do. I know that my habits now will determine how well I’ll be able to serve my wife, daughter and grandkids when they need me later—and they will largely determine how much I’m able to enjoy my life with them. Yet even this, my most important purpose in life, often falls off the radar as I engage in hand-to-hand combat with my day. Healthy habits today might be the difference between a future where I take care of my family and one where they take care of me.
My wife and I don’t have an easy time maintaining healthy habits, and bad ones are notoriously difficult for us to break. In our daily battle with pressing priorities and commitments, thoughts of our future selves often get lost. When that happens, the probability of me being able to wrestle with a grandkid someday dwindles!
Thankfully, my employer cues a healthy habit correction period for us.
Bravo’s wellness program includes no-cost membership to many gyms in the area, along with regular wellness-related campaigns and education sessions. In addition, the company provides a significant annual incentive for my wife and me to see our primary care physician and achieve healthy biometric values (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, tobacco free). The dollars at stake are significant. And I think that’s what’s necessary to pull me out of my day-to-day foxhole and pay attention to my 75-year-old self. That’s what it takes for me to align my present-focused self with my (and my family’s) long-term best interests.
Wellness efforts must deliver business value to employers for them to be viable. But let’s set that aside for a moment and remember that a well-designed mix of resources, education and incentives help human beings. It helps people like me remember the power and agency that they have over their well-being, and encourages them to exercise it. From seeing a provider to practicing a healthier diet to getting outdoors, to quitting cigarettes, there are so many ways that any one person can improve their well-being, and their FUTURE well-being.
My employer’s wellness program helps me bring my day-to-day decision making into line with the future I want: more graduations attended, more grandchildren met, more love, more support, more joy. Wellness programs do the same for millions of others, too.
He & Larsen, W. H. (2014, December). Older Americans with a Disability: 2008-2012. Retrieved from US Census: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/acs/acs-29.pdf