Just What the Doctor Ordered – The Benefits of Wellness Programs for Small Businesses
By Susan Frear, SPHR, GPHR
, Director of Education
The topics of health care reform and the expense of health care insurance have been in the news quite a bit lately. With all of the pundits weighing in on what is right and what is wrong about the health care reform, there is one area where most experts agree - health care is becoming increasingly more expensive because of our unhealthy behaviors.
Wellness programs have become increasingly popular tools for organizations to use to reduce the costs associated with the treatment of lifestyle related diseases and the impact those diseases have on insurance costs. However, the benefits to a wellness program are not restricted to cost containment. A 2009 study of global companies by Buck Consultants showed that while health insurance costs drives many US companies to embrace wellness initiatives, many other countries have used wellness programs to reduce absenteeism, improve employee engagement and employee morale.
This same survey showed that wellness programs have been used to effectively reduce stress, reduce the spread of infectious diseases, to improve employee eating habits and nutrition and to increase the level of physical exercise of employees. So how do organizations address these issues? This is a sample of some of the top wellness elements used internationally:
- Biometric health screening
- On-site health classes
- Gym or fitness club membership discounts
- Immunizations and flu shots
- Employee health fairs
- Health risk appraisals
And many of these types of programs have proved to be very cost effective for organizations. For example, a two-year study by The DuPont Corporation showed that its all-inclusive health promotion program resulted in improved attendance and a 14% decline in disability days (a 5.8% decline was found in the study’s control group). Prudential Insurance Business reported that its major medical expenditures dropped by $262 for each employee that was enrolled in its wellness program.
However, implementing a wellness program for a small organization that lacks the financial and employee resources can seem overwhelming. The good news is that there are a lot of resources that have been made available to small businesses through the passage of the recent health care reform bill. After the recent passage of the bill, the Kaiser Family Foundation listed the following benefits that would be made available beginning in 2011:
- Small employers will have access to federal grants to start wellness programs and the grants will be available for up to five years
- The law will create a new National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council that will be tasked with developing a national health improvement strategy
- Chain restaurants and vending machines will be required to disclose nutritional information
In 2014 employers will also be able to offer employees who participate in a wellness program up to a 50% discount on the cost of health insurance.
But, there are resources available now to small employers today that can be leveraged while they prepare for a more robust wellness program in the future. Many non-profit organizations will offer resources for free or at low costs. For example, Prevent Blindness America will offer free vision screenings for employers in many states. This spring AARP, in partnership with Walgreens, will begin their national Wellness Tour that offers a number of free screenings including glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure and bone density. The American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association also have a number of free pamphlets and resources that can be used to educate employees on the importance of healthy behaviors.
Wellness Proposals has a number of free resources such as health and fitness presentations, toolkits and nutrition handouts available on their website (www.wellnessproposals.com
) and a checklist to help begin setting up a corporate wellness program can be found on Health Advocate’s website (www.healthadvocate.com/downloads/whitepapers/WorkplaceWellnessCheckList.pdf
The bottom line for small organizations is that we are not exempt from experiencing both the rising costs of providing health insurance for our employees or the real costs of disease. We too must explore ways to reduce the costs associated with absenteeism and health insurance premiums. A low budget wellness program, utilizing the resources of your local community, the internet and your health care provider, can make a significant difference in your costs, and more importantly, on how your employees feel.