Wellness programs continue to be a hot topic in the employee benefit industry, but some are skeptical of their true impact on cost reduction. In response, some brokers are looking to wellness coaches to potentially boost participation and increase savings for employer health plans.

While roughly one-third of the clients of Craft Hayes, an adviser for Bernard Health of Nashville, Tenn., express interest in a wellness program, actual employee participation is lackluster at best. “When they make it voluntary, there is pretty low enrollment,” says Hayes. The reason is usually a lack of incentive. Employers want to offer these programs but employees don't see a reduction in their insurance premiums, so they’re not interested, according to Hayes.

Coaching could change that, he says. “For the older members of the workforce, one-on-one coaching could have a huge advantage,” says Hayes. While not every wellness program offers coaching, the majority of the programs offered by Hayes’ advisory firm have a personal coaching element. “They are effective in being able to track and follow up with older workers and report improvements in health claims and improved health conditions.”

Lindsey Bush, an account executive for Gregory & Appel Insurance in Indianapolis, works with a fulltime wellness coordinator who creates custom programs for clients, and they often include wellness coaches.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, it’s one-size-fits-one,” she says. “We have clients that have biometric screenings with coaching components, for example. We also have a wellness program where employers can get better benefits if they meet certain health requirements and this has a participatory and heath coaching component to the plan.”

A fresh approach
The most successful wellness coaches, according to Bush, are the ones who take a fresh approach to their mission. “It’s about more than saying, ‘Here’s a flier about diabetes and weight loss.’ It’s about meeting people where they’re at and understanding the stressors they have in their life and what is causing the struggles related to their health and medical claims,” she says.

The wellness coach will ask how they can help mitigate those problems with new strategies, says Bush. “Whether that is financial wellness or understanding how your diet impacts glucose levels in your blood and what they means for weight gain or your inability to lose weight,” she says.

Coach or no coach, it’s not always possible to save a company or employees money through a wellness plan, one adviser points out.

“We think that wellness should be offered because it's the right thing to do rather than having a direct correlation with healthcare costs,” says Jason Seltzer of J. Seltzer Associates. “Most of our clients feel the same way and while many clients have implemented some plans, like smoking cessation and step challenges, when it comes to comprehensive wellness, not so much.”

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Seltzer says the benefits of a wellness program can take years to measure and materialize. Plus, one catastrophic event could wipe out any savings. “The vast majority of claimants are not the ones driving increases. You can have 20 people with diabetes and one premature baby will cost more than all of them,” he says.

Still, a coach does bring accountability.

One wellness provider that offers onsite wellness coaching believes that coaches can inspire employees to use and pay greater attention to their wearable biometric technology such as Fitbit and Apple iWatches. “Wearables are the most used technology product right now and we are finding that without coaching, they usually end up in people’s drawers,” says Gene McGuire, managing partner of Wellness Coaches.

“The employees working with a coach are more likely to set goals and achieve them,” says McGuire.

“We find it significantly more useful to do this while working with a coach because employees are less likely to do it to begin with and then those resources and tools become far less valuable,” he says.

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