Participants in comprehensive workplace wellness programs achieve a significant reduction in health risks in as little as 18 months, according to a new study conducted by the Principal Financial Group, with the greatest impact among participants who also received personalized health coaching.

Almost all wellness program participants showed some improvement in health risk status, but for individuals participating in one-on-one health coaching, more than one in three (34%) moved from a high-risk status to a lower risk category. This shift significantly decreases their likelihood of developing diabetes, heart attack or stroke. The percentage of participants considered low-risk increased by more than 11%.

“Anecdotally, we knew wellness programs were improving health and in some cases saving lives, but we wanted to quantify it,” says Lee Dukes, president of Principal Wellness Company, a subsidiary of the Principal Financial Group. “By using an evidence-based approach, we’ve taken an in-depth look at how wellness programs work in reducing individual health risk factors. Comprehensive wellness programs that include personalized health coaching demonstrate the most significant improvements.”

The study, which tracked 12,000 adults enrolled in Principal wellness programs over a two-year period, monitored several key indicators of metabolic syndrome including blood pressure, triglycerides, tobacco use and waist circumference. Metabolic syndrome, often a precursor to diabetes, heart attack or stroke, was used to identify participants at highest risk and those were referred into a health coaching program. Improvement or movement into a lower risk category was defined as no longer having metabolic syndrome.

“These individuals are much more likely to develop a chronic health condition, which will lead to higher medical costs over time,” says Dukes. “Employers have limited benefit dollars and health care costs are often their most pressing concern, so employers need to look for the greatest return on their investment. These results reinforce the benefits to employers who offer comprehensive wellness programs.”

Health coaches tailor information to wellness program participants’ individual health goals. Through one-on-one interactions, ongoing activities and education, participants are encouraged to take small steps toward individual success. As a result, the participants stick with the program long enough to experience personal benefits such as losing weight, becoming tobacco free and feeling better overall.

Ongoing studies of this group will continue to evaluate the impact of engagement in other activities throughout the year and to measure the impact of health care claims costs over time.

The study follows three large industrial clients that Dukes and his team thought would be the toughest population; primarily male, working in transportation, manufacturing or construction.

“The common thread of the three groups is that the employers are promoting and believe in wellness, and we were able to do biometric screenings pre- and post-coaching program,” he says.

The three groups, fairly new to offering wellness programs to employees, have three different approaches to incentivize employees and offer an assortment of monetary rewards, but some require the completion of health coaching for those that are high risk.

The incentives vary, says Dukes.

One group offers a $600 employer contribution into a health savings account, another offers a $1,200 premium differential for those involved in the wellness program, and the third offers close to a $500 premium differential.

The study is ongoing and additional information can be found on the Principal website.

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