Employees embrace wellness but don't take full advantage

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Though there's a continued push for workplace wellness programs, employers still have some work to do to make sure employees are taking full advantage of such offerings.

New research shows that while employees say they are interested in wellness programs, factors such as underestimating available incentives and not spending a sufficient amount of time on wellness, are preventing both employers and employees from maximizing the benefits of such programs.

The good news, according to new research from UnitedHealthcare, is that most employees say they are interested in wellness programs.

And while 59% of people with access to such programs said the initiatives have made a positive impact on their health, a majority (85%) of respondents with access to a wellness program say they are “somewhat aware” or “very aware” of the details of the program.

However, nearly two-thirds of employees underestimate potential wellness-related financial incentives available through employer programs, which average $742 per employee per year, according to separate research from the National Business Group on Health.

The UnitedHealthcare survey found that 41% of full-time workers estimated the average financial incentive available through an employer-sponsored program to be up to $300 per employee per year, while 24% thought it was between $301 and $600.

Only one in 10 correctly averages incentives to be between $601 and $900. Popular incentives include health insurance premium reductions (77%), grocery store vouchers or discounts (64%) and health savings account credits (62%).

“By engaging employees in their health, workplace wellness programs may be able to encourage well-being, prevent disease before it starts and, as result, help lower medical costs,” says Rebecca Madsen, UnitedHealthcare chief consumer officer.

One other problem with wellness programs? Some employees aren't willing to invest much time each day to improve their health and well-being. For instance, 15% of employees said they would devote less than an hour each week to pursuing healthy activities such as consistent exercise or researching healthy foods, while nearly a quarter of workers would commit to one to three hours. Only about one in five (19%) respondents would devote nine hours or more per week to improving their health.

One of the more popular tools used in wellness programs are fitness trackers, the study notes. Among employees without an activity tracker, 62% said they would be interested in using a wearable fitness tracker as part of a workplace wellness program.

According to technology consultancy Endeavors Partners, companies nationwide are expected by 2018 to incorporate more than 13 million fitness tracking devices into their wellness programs as a way to help reduce obesity and sedentary time among employees.

And although fitness trackers are growing in popularity, comprehension of physical activity to real-world accomplishments is still hazy. Seventy-one percent of employees underestimate the distance necessary to achieve 10,000 daily steps, which roughly equates to five miles — the target some health experts recommend to prevent a sedentary lifestyle, according to UnitedHealthcare’s study.

About one quarter of respondents believed 10,000 steps equated to two miles; 26% estimated three miles; and 17% said four miles. One in five employees correctly estimated five miles as the necessary distance to achieve 10,000 steps, the study noted.

Madsen says the UnitedHealthcare survey highlights that more employers are investing in wellness to “help encourage happy, healthy and engaged employees.”

Still, employers can move the needle even more by taking a number of steps to refine — or begin — a wellness program. Those steps, she says, include: customizing a strategy for your workforce; offering incentives to get employees to participate; creating a healthy culture at work with healthy food options and an on-site fitness center; and making sure to properly communicate the wellness program to employees.

And, Madsen notes, employers need to “be flexible and listen to employees on how to improve wellness offerings for the future.”

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