“Wellness” is more than health screening programs, perhaps surprisingly so. The Workplace Wellness Trends survey released this week by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans categorizes employer efforts to encourage employees to take advantage of their accrued vacation days as a wellness program, provided by 66% of employers surveyed. Health screenings, in contrast, were conducted by only half of the survey base.

The IFEBP included vacation encouragement among a set of nontraditional wellness initiatives that also included:

  • Mental health coverage (offered by 66% of employers);
  • Tuition reimbursement, (offered by 66% of employers);
  • Community charity drives, (offered by 57% of organizations); and
  • On-site events/celebrations (offered by 50% of companies surveyed).

Also see: Toxic workplaces override wellness efforts

Given the protections for mental health services under the Mental Health Parity Act and the inclusion of mental health benefits as one of the ten “essential health benefits” under the Affordable Care Act, the 66% prevalence of “mental health coverage” may appear somewhat low.

The ‘whole picture’

“Many organizations are moving beyond just physical health and are looking at the whole picture of employee well-being,” says Michael Wilson, CEO of the IFEBP. He lauded the “expansion of workplace wellness initiatives” beyond their original narrower focus.

The most common medically oriented wellness benefit offered (by 71% of the polled employers) was flu shots, followed by:

  • Smoking cessation, 54%;
  • Health risk assessments, 51%;
  • Health screenings, 50%; and
  • Wellness competitions/fitness challenges, 42%.

Also see: 7 signs of a toxic workplace culture

The apparent ongoing broadening of the definition of ‘wellness’ is reflected in the most common (59%) survey respondent characterization of their rationale for offering wellness benefits: “Primarily to invest in/increase worker health and engagement.” The remaining 41% described their primary goal as “to control/reduce health-related costs.”

Few assess ROI

Bending the health care cost curve via wellness programs has been an elusive goal for many employers, particularly in the absence of consistent, aggressive long-term efforts. That might explain the survey result showing that only about one in four employers (26%) seek to analyze the return on their investment in wellness. Yet ROI calculation results are entirely dependent on the nature of the return employers are attempting to achieve.

As often as not, ROI calculations were performed by a “wellness vendor, provider or consultant” as by internal staff (about 11% reported one or the other). Only 3.1% reported having the ROI calculation performed by an actuary, presumably a more probable source of more rigorous and neutral data analysis.

Also see: Is your wellness math better than a fifth grader’s?

Wellness program results for employers “tracking more specific wellness efforts” than providing one overall assessment, reported their wellness efforts have:

  • Improved engagement, 54%;
  • Reduced absenteeism, 45%; and
  • Improved the organization’s “overall bottom line,” 38%.

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