Employers implementing wellness programs not only will help lower health-related costs, but their employees will be more engaged and productive while on the clock.

There are three pillars of engagement that are extremely important to wellness program success, said David Anderson, senior vice president and chief health officer of StayWell Health Management. They are culture, communication and compliance.



Anderson told brokers at the 6th Annual Employee Benefit Adviser Summit in Dallas that culture is the big driver when it comes to wellness behavior changes. He asked audience members to think about making a change in their own life.

"If everything is aligned to support you; if the environment around you is supportive, if the people around you are supportive, if the rules of engagement are supportive, it's a whole lot easier to change than if everything is pushing back [at you]."



Communication reinforces the culture. It must be consistent. For example, if an employer does not portray the wellness program seriously in employee communications, it can be seen as not as important as health, vision and dental plans.

Anderson added that communication and the way those in the industry address wellness programs cannot be biased.



If used correctly, incentives become a powerful tool in engaging a population. "Incentives are basically your way of getting employees to participate in a program; I call it the one pillar of compliance, because that is essentially what you get. If you pay somebody enough to do something, at some point they will eventually do it," said Anderson.

However, incentives can go wrong behaviorally and legally, he warned.



A year ago, 62% of employers were using incentives in their programs, 25% were planning to, and only 13% weren't considering them, Anderson said. He noted that once a employer hit a $100 threshold on the incentive, the strategy starts shifting from direct rewards into incorporating incentives into the plan design.

"Their content to give a $50 or a $100 incentive in the form of a debit or gift card and tie that to various aspects of [a program], but once it gets bigger than that, they move into plan design."


Healthier employees and healthier balance sheets

In a recent EBA-hosted web seminar, two expert employers are using incentives to create effective wellness programs.

For every $1 spent on workplace wellness, $3.27 in health care costs can be saved according to a February 2010 survey, said Raymond Seaver, executive vice president at Chicago-based bswift.

"Healthier employees translate to healthier bottom line especially [since] increasing health care costs are a challenge for all of us," maintained Seaver.

Companies are adding wellness programs to help mitigate those increasing costs, he adds.

Tom Abshire, senior vice president of marketing and member engagement at Farmingham, Mass.-based Virgin HealthMiles, provided tips for building effective programs and offered three health incentives trends supported by recent reports:

* There is greater aligning interests and economics between the employer and the employee

* The value of incentives is increasing. Among employers, incentives averaged $430 per employee in 2010, a 65% increase from $260 in 2009.

The health care cost trend continues to drive employer interest in incentive-based wellness programs, Abshire noted.

"One VP of HR told me recently that within their planning horizon, they expect to see the cost of health care exceed the costs of wages for a significant number of their employees."

Experts are still looking for the incentive silver bullet. While there are many incentive options, they are still not having enough impact, he said. HR managers continue to struggle to find ways to motivate employees, while the plan participants find that the incentives aren't compelling or it is too hard for them to understand their progress, Abshire observed.

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