More and more companies are enrolling their workforce in health and wellness programs to cut staggering health care costs, reduce absenteeism and foster productivity as well as morale and loyalty, according to several studies on recent changes in employer-based health care policies. There is a fast growing interest in taking preventive measures such as promoting weight control, physical activity and cessation of tobacco use, not only among big corporations but also small and mid-size businesses.
Lifestyle-related (and therefore preventable) illnesses make up approximately 80 percent of the burden of health care costs for companies and 90 percent of all health care costs, according to one study.
Health and wellness incentives have long been considered a luxury only large corporations can afford, not a strategic imperative for all businesses to keep ever-increasing health care costs at bay, say the authors of a study published in the Harvard Business Review. That view is rapidly changing.
There is no shortage of examples where investments in employees' social, mental and physical health has paid off. For instance, Johnson & Johnson has estimated that their wellness program, which started out in 1995, saved the company about $250 million in health care costs over a decade, according to the report.
Despite of these encouraging case studies, many wellness programs continue to evolve and companies are still trying to figure out exactly how or if their initiatives affect their bottom line, according to analyses by business insurance companies.
To be sure, not all employees welcome these programs in their place of work. Sometimes additional incentives such as reductions in premiums and co-payments and other cash bonuses are needed to get them to join.
A few employers have begun requiring health risk assessments and biometric screening for their workers to qualify for health care coverage, a step some may consider an undue intrusion in their private affairs.
Experts warn against an antagonistic climate around the issue of health in the workplace. Employers should design their policies and programs around the needs of their employees, advises Judith A. Monroe, M.D., State Health Commissioner of Indiana. If there are a number of smokers in a company, offering cessation counseling may be important. If weight problems are of concern, access to exercise and nutrition programs could be provided.
"One of the components that is key to the overall success of wellness programs is the development of a culture of health within the organization," says Dr. Steven Noelder, a consultant with Total Health Management> in Newport Beach, Calif. "Not only do you need top-down support, you also need support at the grassroots level." In other words, only when everyone feels that the measures taken are in his or her own best interest can health and wellness programs produce the desired outcome and make a difference for the better.
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