Brokers shifting focus to strategic well-being

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Benefit advisers have historically approached wellness as a pretty straightforward ROI-driven sales play. Offer a client the right program, and there’s likely a compelling economic argument that the cost of the program will pay off in reduced medical expenses, lower premiums, and less employee absenteeism.

But the concept of wellness is evolving dramatically. In today’s fast-moving, digitally charged markets, companies are increasingly dependent on a precious and scarce commodity: smart, highly motivated people. So among forward-looking employers wellness programs have taken on a whole new imperative. They have become an essential part of transforming the workplace to achieve a multifaceted competitive advantage that encompasses attracting and retaining top talent, enhancing organizational performance and elevating a company’s brand.

“Benefit advisers can play a lead role in helping employers create the conditions that allow employees to bring their best selves to work,” asserts Michelle Spehr, Health and Wellness Consultant at The Benefit Services Group in Pewaukee, WI. “Wellness best practices also address many of the issues that lead to toxic work environments—which are a leading cause of poor company performance.”

A Bigger Wellness Picture

To deliver greater value to their corporate clients, advisers have to craft more strategic and compelling wellness programs. Such programs need to address the five categories of well-being outlined in Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, Ph.D.

These include:

  • Physical well-being – which encompasses employees’ health and fitness, ensuring that they consistently have the energy and stamina to maintain a high level of personal productivity.
  • Financial well-being – which covers how well employees manage their personal finances, including budgeting, debt and investments.
  • Career well-being – which determines the degree of fulfillment and the level of engagement employees experience in the workplace.
  • Social well-being – which addresses the quality of the sustaining relationships employees have in their lives.
  • Community well-being – which reflects employees’ level of engagement with their friends, neighbors and local communities.

Employees with a high degree of well-being across all of these categories tend to work harder, get along better with their co-workers and be less susceptible to various difficulties that can adversely impact their contribution to the workplace.

“If an employee is super-stressed about burdensome student loans or an aging parent, that’s going to affect them and the people they work with,” observes Nicole Consiglio, a workforce health consultant at Digital Benefit Advisors. “The right wellness program effectively mitigates the risk of that happening.”

The growing dependency of businesses on high-performing team members isn’t the only reason benefit advisers are finding fertile ground for more comprehensive wellness programs. An increasingly dominant Millennial culture is another.

“Millennials require their employers to give them more reasons to work hard than just a paycheck and a 401K,” notes Spehr. “A program that tangibly demonstrates an employer’s concern for its employees—and, perhaps even beyond that, the local community—can go a long way to providing some of those reasons.”

EBA Survey Insights

Strategic cross-category wellness programs, however, are just starting to find acceptance. Most benefit advisers still struggle to get the majority of their clients to make even relatively conventional investments in the health of their workforce.

Employee Benefit News’ 2016 wellness benchmark study confirms this state of affairs. Per the survey, about two-thirds of advisers have succeeded at launching wellness programs with only around one-third of their clients, while the remaining 30% of advisors have only been able to initiate wellness programs at 10% or fewer of their clients.

The scope of these programs remains quite limited as well, with most still almost exclusively centered on physical wellness.

“Millennials require their employers to give them more reasons to work hard than just a paycheck and a 401K."

Biometric testing, for example, is a fairly pervasive component of corporate wellness programs—with about 75% of clients signing up for blood pressure, cholesterol, and BMI screenings. Two-thirds of advisers’ clients opt to include health risk assessments, flu shots and smoking cessation as well. These activities support traditional cost mitigation goals, since employees who smoke or have unchecked high blood pressure are much more likely to require extensive medical treatments.

Wellness initiatives with a less direct impact on employees’ physical wellbeing are far less popular. Very few programs, for instance, currently address the issue of caregiver support—despite the toll caregiving can take on an employee.

Employer attitudes, however, are shifting. While only 5% of adviser clients offer caregiver support at present, the advisers surveyed indicate that more twice as many will add that support next year. The EBA survey finds that other wellness elements such as nutrition-related activities and stress management are also slated for significantly wider adoption.

Moving Up the Value Chain

To bridge the gap between current wellness program realities and the workplace ideals articulated by thought leaders such as Rath and Harter, benefit advisers have their work cut out for them.

DBA’s Consiglio encourages advisers to kick off any effort to move clients further up the wellness value chain with two important fact-finding initiatives. The first is a close examination of the client’s goals, attributes, and current culture. “It’s not unusual to have a client ask you to just sort of whip up a cookie-cutter wellness program,” she says. “But one size definitely does not fit all.”

For example, a company with a large field-sales force, consisting mostly of younger males who play lots of competitive sports, will have very different needs than a company with older workers of both genders and a large inbound call-center staff whose work is highly sedentary.

Similarly, a high-tech startup that needs to quickly onboard a lot of hard-to-recruit talent, and is staffed by people who love to use devices like wearables, may have different wellness goals than an industrial manufacturer focused on worker safety—and whose employees may view wearables as an unacceptable invasion of privacy.

Employers spend a ton of money on wellness, yet many programs fail to engage employees over the long term. Emily Noll, national director of wellness with CBIZ Benefits and Insurance Services, Inc. shares 10 reasons employees don’t like wellness programs.
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The second piece of the fact-finding puzzle is to poll the employees themselves. “Your chances of creating a program that meets peoples’ needs and makes them feel cared for are much higher if you actually care enough about those needs to ask them what they are,” Consiglio observes.

The benefits consultant also cautions her peers against trying to take clients too far too fast. Instead, it’s usually wiser to begin with the basics, like education and awareness, building on those wins to expand the program incrementally: “A smart adviser will craft a multi-phased path to success, rather than trying to get a company’s executives and employees to bite off more than they can chew.”

Is the effort required to offer clients a more strategic approach to wellness worth it? Dr. Paul Terry, President and CEO of the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), thinks so. “Advisers who broaden the value proposition of their wellness programs will be able to engage much more strategically with their clients,” he maintains.

In an intensely competitive, price-sensitive market, such strategic engagement is a great way for advisers to differentiate themselves and their offerings.

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