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Making the Wellness Case: How HR Can Help Lower Insurance Costs and Boost Morale

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The buzz around wellness initiatives, internal programs that encourage workers to live healthier lives, continues to grow. These programs can lower health insurance costs, boost morale, and forge lasting bonds between companies and employees. But to achieve real results, they require engagement at every level of the organization. HR must take the lead in crafting communications that can both activate leadership and inspire passionate, widespread employee participation.

Ken Kane (current Director at CERIPH) and fellow presenter Elissa Palmer (current District Sales Manager HR Services at Paychex) visited TemPositions’ HR Roundtable Series to share their insights into launching successful wellness programs. Together, they urged attendees to own the process and make their case with confidence—to leadership and employees alike.

Many employers believe they can’t afford wellness programs, Kane explained. But this challenge can be embraced by any organization that’s ready to commit to positive change. At root, the objective of a wellness program is to develop a workforce that is healthier and more productive. To achieve this goal, there are incremental and affordable steps that any company can take.

“What I’m going to talk to you about today is applicable whether you employ five people, 500 people or 5,000 people,” he stressed. “Your budget can be effective no matter how many people you employ. The principles remain the same.”

What Wellness Is and Why It Matters

Kane described company wellness (or as he likes to call it, “well-being”) as “a proactive and preventative approach designed to achieve optimum levels of health, social and emotional functioning.” For employees, these programs represent education, guidance and encouragement. They help workers learn more about the choices they can make to achieve all-around well-being.

There’s every indication that wellness programs are here to stay. A recent Mercer study found that 78% of large employers are now “interested in supporting wellness programs.” The prevalence of these programs continues to grow due to the extraordinary amount of time Americans spend at work and the effect their work experience has on who they are—and how they behave.

According to a study from Campbell, Converse & Rodgers, the average adult spends 1/4th to 1/3rd of their life in the workplace. And, it turns out, satisfaction at work accounts for 1/5th to 1/4th of peoples’ overall happiness. Happy workers, of course, are more productive and loyal. And over time, physically healthy employees will cost the company less in health insurance premiums.

As both speakers agreed, programs that focus exclusively on exercise or diet habits won’t deliver the same results as those that address employees’ holistic needs for all-around well-being. The best wellness programs improve both physical and psychological health.

“We’re not just skin and bones and muscle,” Kane explained. “We have physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs to function and perform well as human beings. And if one of those needs isn’t met, it affects our performance in the workplace.”

The Case for Wellness Initiatives

It’s likely that everyone at a company views wellness as a personal goal. But for HR to institute a formal wellness program, they’ll need to persuade leadership that it will benefit the organization. It is indisputable, both Kane and Palmer agreed, that wellness delivers value to employers. And thankfully, improved measurement strategies now make it easier for HR to make their case.

Companies with robust wellness programs enjoy higher levels of employee engagement. Their workers are not only more productive, their work is of a higher quality. Thanks to improved physical health, employees fall ill less frequently, decreasing absenteeism. And thanks to greater emotional stability, they don’t get into as many petty disputes or need as much discipline.

Increasingly, Kane noted, employees perceive wellness programs as part of the “overall duty of care” that companies have for their workers. And when they see their employers embracing this duty, they reward them with loyalty and advocacy. Businesses enjoy higher retention levels and—notably—reduced costs associated with recruiting and hiring.

Pay attention to these cost savings opportunities, Palmer stressed, as it will often be “the numbers” that persuade leadership to act. She cited a recent Harvard University Study that found mature wellness programs (i.e., those established and running for at least three years) will provide $3.00 of benefit for every $1.00 of investment. Other studies value the benefit as high as $6.00.

The State of Nebraska presents a compelling case study. The state saw its health insurance premium costs (across over 10,000 employees) rising by an alarming percentage each year and instituted a widespread wellness program. Over the course of the next three years, the state saved over $4.2M in claims. Their measurement plan wasn’t complex, but it did the job, Palmer noted. The state based its metrics on one simple question: “What happens if we do nothing?”

“Talk to your CFO,” she challenged attendees. “It might be helpful to say, ‘Listen, our claims are growing by 22-26% every year, let’s try this.’” In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) established that one in seven Americans now manage a chronic disease, she explained. In that context, the relatively low cost of trying something might get consideration.

Driving Participation with Communication

In spite of wellness programs’ proven effectiveness, most companies only achieve a participation rate of 20%. John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, infamously “nagged” one of his regional presidents into enrolling in the company’s “total health immersion program.” But for most companies, this type of strong-arming isn’t practical, and relatively low enrollment rates remain the norm.

The reasons for this, both speakers noted, can be surprising. According to “Wellness in the Workplace 2012,” a study from Optum, 30% of workers cited lack of time or energy to participate, and 26% cited a lack of interest. But intriguingly, employees don’t seem to lack understanding of wellness programs—or the compelling benefits they offer.

The great barrier to participation, Kane stressed, may well be messaging strategy. Employees need to understand not only that a wellness program exists and that it offers benefits. They need to receive the clear message that leadership believes in the program, wants them to benefit, and expects their participation as responsible members of a 2013 employment community.

“One of the keys to success is a sustained program of great communication,” he stated. “Not a poster here, there, and everywhere. Great communication.” By using only the most effective methods, HR can close the divide that too often persists between company leadership and employees—including when it comes to promoting well-being.

“We have to make wellness matter,” Kane counseled. And that requires compelling communications. Not the Surgeon General’s dry warning on the back of a cigarette pack, but a clear and motivating message that inspires confidence and makes employees feel emotionally ready and eager to commit to behavioral changes.

With all that HR juggles, this challenge can feel daunting, Palmer noted. Today’s workforces span many generations, which all have their own preferred communication methods.  With so much information to share, it’s sometimes difficult just to know where to start. HR already struggles to communicate the many benefits available to workers, such as Employee Assistance Programs. Adding an awareness campaign around wellness can seem overwhelming.

Some of the most effective messages are simple acts of recognition—like a monthly email from leadership congratulating individuals who’ve made significant behavioral changes. As Palmer put it, these messages “resonate through the entire organization.” And notably, they’re free.

Individual and group events centered around well-being provide employees with the opportunity to communicate directly with one another, as well as with leadership (who should be represented at such gatherings). The camaraderie built at these events strengthens wellness programs by creating a true community around them.

Palmer led a brainstorm on effective wellness communications. As part of the discussion, many attendees described past practices that had been effective for their companies. Ideas included:

  • Walking challenges requiring a daily log of steps taken—with the most active walkers receiving callouts from leadership/HR
  • Regular wellness newsletters with tips for healthier living
  • A wellness poster board in company kitchenettes, featuring:

– Wellness calendars promoting healthy recipes

– Monthly wellness awareness bulletins

– Testimonials from active participants

Again, it’s important to remember that well-being extends beyond physical health, Kane noted. Companies should round out their wellness programs with initiatives aimed at stress reduction and developing the “emotional maturity of the organization.” These types of communication strategies can motivate enrollment and participation as an act of personal reflection.

Of course, making a significant change to the company’s operations will be a challenge, both speakers agreed. Rather than jump into communications hastily, HR needs to formulate a plan.

Change Management

HR’s first communication must have a clear objective. It’s important to consider the audience, the group that leadership wants to reach. What are their communication preferences? How much detail is appropriate? Do they have preconceived notions of wellness that need to be acknowledged? What is the right mix of emotional vs. factual content to engage them?

“Emotionally speaking,” Kane explained, “people need to know what’s changing, what will be different because of the change, and the answer to, ‘What’s in it for me to change?’” He encouraged attendees to transparently share what the company hopes to gain. Keep communications short and heartfelt, with no jargon, he advised, and help workers understand why the company thinks wellness will work for everyone.

Once the message is crafted, HR must decide upon timing. Follow-up communications should also be scheduled, with accountable parties identified in both HR and at the leadership level.

And finally, HR must design a mechanism for fielding and responding to feedback. Wellness enthusiasts can be invaluable influencers—but only if their voices are heard in HR and they believe the company appreciates their special eagerness to engage. The company should decide how and when to encourage feedback about the wellness initiative and commit to a specific course of action when suggestions, critiques and other comments come in.

Launching Wellness Initiatives: A Step-by-Step Guide

The launch of a wellness program either builds employees’ faith in the process or diminishes it — so it’s crucial to success. Workers must believe that leadership is serious about well-being as an organizational goal and that the company will follow through on the promises it makes to those that enroll and participate.

Companies will succeed by taking a step-by-step approach: Lead From the Top

“Wellness must be lived and led from the top of the business,” Kane stressed. Thankfully, this requirement can be met in a variety of ways. It’s helpful when a high-level executive takes ownership of the wellness program, personally investing in its success. But even if HR leads the effort, highly-visible participation from management can also be compelling to employees.

Incorporate wellness into performance evaluations, Kane advised. The expectation that all workers—including leadership—will take part in activities to promote their own well-being can become a core competency. Managers can be asked to participate in well-being initiatives to manage stress and improve their relationships with subordinates. And some physical wellness goals can be incorporated into everyone’s performance management.

Insurance carriers (and the law) permit employers to reward and penalize workers who don’t pursue their own wellness, within limits. If an employee participates in wellness initiatives, the company may reward them by paying up to 30% of their premium. Smokers who refuse to join programs that can help them quit smoking, by contrast, can be penalized up to 50%.

There are compliance issues through HIPAA to be concerned with, Palmer warned. Generally speaking, rewards for taking part in wellness programs must be available to everyone, including those with disabilities or physical/other limitations that may make participation difficult. In these cases, the company must make accommodations or offer alternative activities to give these workers an equal chance of earning wellness rewards.

You could also offer awards simply for participating, not just for “winning” or “losing” a challenge. For example, you could order custom hats for everyone who signs up for your weight loss program.


Empower Influential Employees

It’s helpful to identify a “wellness champion” within the workforce. This individual can motivate others to enroll and help form/lead wellness committees, ideally across departments (and even offices). These committees can motivate their colleagues to enroll, encourage them to participate regularly, promote well-being in creative ways, and act as the voice of employees to leadership.

Ongoing employee input will be needed to ensure that the program stays relevant and engaging. In partnership with HR, the wellness committee can conduct a “wellness interest survey.” Using this survey, leadership can find out how many employees would be interested in enrolling, and can learn what types of initiatives workers would like to see integrated into the program.

Using these types of feedback mechanisms, employers can also discover the most meaningful incentives and employee recognition to offer. Some workforces will lobby for casual Fridays, while others will vote for social events, gift cards, or discounts at local businesses.

Research Low-to-No-Cost Activities

To ensure everyone’s success—including the organization’s—start small, Palmer stressed.

Companies can begin by hosting walking events or once-monthly meetings on well-being topics. It can be fun to brand the wellness program, giving it a name that’s especially meaningful.

Concurrently, larger companies can research services offered by their partners. Insurance carriers may participate in onsite wellness fairs and provide free biometric health screenings. (Be sure to have a counselor handy, Palmer warned, for helping employees deal with troubling test results.)

Some carriers provide cold cash for wellness initiatives—a solution for covering wellness expenses that every COO will find attractive. Cigna, for example, offers $4,000 per year to larger companies that institute programs to improve worker health. Employers pay their suppliers directly, then expense their wellness supplies/activities to the carrier. This puts them in the driving seat and ensures they don’t feel that they are being preached to or overly scrutinized in their wellness-related purchasing decisions. So whether they sign up for a special diet meal or a local gym class, it’s their choice and prerogative.

For smaller companies, the web offers a variety of great resources. New York City’s Department of Health website offers an array of free wellness posters and other boilerplate documents to distribute to workers and promote wellness programs. The Wellness Council of America (WELCOA) also provides a robust site filled with free information that can help small employers find resources and support tools.

“There’s a way to start small and build, year over year,” Palmer explained. “When you make impact and change, you can get a little bigger.”

Choose & Roll Out Wellness Initiatives

With a clear announcement of leadership’s goal to spread well-being and an employee-led committee in place to serve as a feedback mechanism, HR is ready to begin rolling out specific wellness initiatives.

Remember to begin modestly, Palmer and Kane counseled. Build upon whatever infrastructure the company already has in place. Discover what you can manage, what employees embrace, and what HR can effectively measure for leadership.

Common wellness initiatives that span both physical and emotional well-being include:

  • Biometric health screenings
  • Lunch n’ Learns on the full spectrum of well-being topics:

– Financial security (relieving stress)

– Work-life balance (promoting calm)

– Elder care presentations (reducing workday distraction for caregivers)

– Latest health news/dietary recommendations (supporting healthy choices)

  • Health and well-being fairs and/or town hall meetings
  • Walking events (including pedometers for counting steps)

– Outdoors and indoors (e.g., “Wednesday is Take-the-Stairs Day”)

  • Annual wellness calendars
  • Special events and activities (e.g., Wii stations for the office)
  • Newsletters (e.g., health or emotional well-being “Topic of the Month”)
  • Physical challenges/competitions (ensuring goals are achievable for all)
  • Online resources for well-being (e.g., links, webinars, company intranet portal)
  • Charity tie-ins (e.g., Habitat for Humanity, medical research walk-a-thons)
  • Conflict resolution workshops
  • Reimbursed or subsidized gym memberships
  • Nicotine Anonymous chapters
  • Recipe challenge: recreate an old comfort food favorite using nutritious ingredients
  • Wellness resource center

Throughout a program’s first year, be sure to elicit and act upon employee feedback. After all, worker enthusiasm is HR’s first available metric. As momentum grows over the second and third year—and leadership is able to review more types of results—expanding both programs and their budgets may become possible.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Wellness Initiatives

Strong measurement starts with clear goals. Like the State of Nebraska, the company may choose to pursue lowering health care premiums by a certain percentage over time. It can also seek to move employees from high-risk health status to low-risk, or challenge employees to improve results for general health screenings.

Again, wellness isn’t confined to physical health. So the company can also aim at improving employee engagement. Engagement can now be readily measured through surveys and other common tools, and it’s clearly demonstrated in the workplace through higher productivity, reduced absenteeism, and more team-oriented work habits.

“What we’re talking about is activation of behavioral changes in the organization,” Kane explained. “We want to create a behavioral shift.” Whether it’s reducing stress (evidenced by fewer workplace conflicts) or promoting advocacy (evidenced by increased numbers of referrals coming in to HR for open positions), companies can choose the behavioral changes they want to see to grow their businesses—and measure wellbeing’s progress against them accordingly.

Make the Case & Follow Through

In the end, effective wellness programs succeed because they benefit both businesses and their employees, Kane and Palmer agreed in closing. Companies get a more committed, passionate employee base that appreciates where they work. And workers enjoy better health, peace of mind, and the feeling that they come to work every day for an organization that values them.

Make the case to your organization based on the benefits, Palmer stressed. Find a partner among senior leadership and share wellness ROI studies and the success stories of other companies who embrace wellness—and benefit from it. Ensure management understands the opportunity and will be prepared to give wellness a chance.

Because in the end, Kane noted, leadership’s commitment makes transformation possible. By providing employees with emotional, spiritual and physical opportunities to enhance their own well-being, businesses can partner with their workforce to do more than drop a few pounds. Together, they can redefine the company for a new age.

“Well-being is not just what you do,” he concluded. “It’s part of your DNA—who you are.”

Join the next HR Roundtable

Don’t miss our next discussion! Sign up for TemPositions’ next HR Roundtable here. This SHRM certified event will earn you or your HR team members 1.5 professional development credits.

Please note: the information reflected in this post is not official legal advice nor does it necessary reflect the opinions of the associated firms.

Anne DeAcetis is a freelance writer based in New York. Reach her at The HR Roundtable is a breakfast forum for human resources professionals in New York City sponsored by The TemPositions Group of Companies. TemPositions, one of the largest staffing companies in the New York tri-state area with operations in California, has been helping businesses with their short- and long-term staffing needs since 1962. Visit them online at or email them at

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