Don't settle for second-rate data on wellness, safety programs

You may be surprised what you learn

If you assume that your workforce has better than average health statistics due to programs for nutrition, fitness and smoking cessation, you may be sadly mistaken. On the other hand, you may have far fewer obese employees than the national average.

Either way, this information should drive your wellness programs. "Data should drive your decisions about program delivery. It's always better to do it that way, than to have a shotgun approach," says Jonathan Dawe, director of safety, health and workers' compensation at Atlanta, GA-based Simmons Bedding Company.

Having strong data can help you to do more with less. It can possibly save a program — or even your job.

"Occupational health is feeling the same pressures as everybody else in the business world. So we shouldn't feel victimized or special in any way," says Dawe. "But, we do need to communicate continuously where we can drive down costs and add value to the business."

The problem, says Dawe, is that occupational health is "usually focused on clinical outcomes only. They are caught up in day-to-day prevention and treatment activities. They are not necessarily focused on communicating the broader results of their efforts to the executives in charge of the organization."

Do you feel you are lacking enough information to make good judgment calls? "It's a myth that there's not data readily available," says Dawe.

Dawe says to first look at health care utilization rates available from your insurer, to learn more about which diseases and conditions are most frequent in your workplace, and the costs associated with them. Next, perform health risk assessments. Look for conditions that are precursors of chronic—and costly—diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular illness.

At very little cost, you can put together a simple employee health risk survey. Ask workers to report on smoking, diet, exercise and their general feeling of well-being. "All of those are data points that impact productivity, medical utilization, and performance on the job," says Dawe. "Most wellness efforts are not high dollar expenses. Most involve education and minor incentives. And there's not an executive in this country that doesn't understand that nothing can bankrupt a company quicker than the cost of health care inflation." Here are some approaches:

• Offer incentives to encourage employees to complete surveys.

For instance, randomly pick five survey participants who will be given a 20% discount on health premiums for the year, or offer every tenth (or hundredth) person a $50 gas card.

• Don't make assumptions.

Dawe says that every time a health risk assessment or survey has been done at Simmons, he's been surprised by something. For example, a recent detailed survey revealed that a larger percentage of the workforce than expected was obese, used tobacco, and didn't obtain preventative care.

'We are in the budgeting and planning process right now, deciding what to ratchet up," says Dawe. "If we didn't know this information, then we wouldn't know where to target our efforts."

• Make it personal.

If you've got some examples of employees whose health has changed because of an occupational health program, this is powerful information. It may just change the mind of a senior leader who is thinking about cutting resources in your department.

"Nothing resonates with people better than a good story," says Dawe. "People like good news. At a very human level, most people like to feel like they are making a difference."

• Develop tools for long-term evaluation of return on investment.

Short-term evaluations may give you false low or high cost savings, according to Karen Mastroianni, RN, MPH, COHN - S, FAAOHN, co-owner and health and safety strategist for Raleigh, NC-based Dimensions in Occupational Health & Safety, which provides integrated health, safety and wellness solutions for businesses.

Often, individuals make changes during the programs that aren't sustained. Without ongoing support and mentoring, any gains may be lost.

"It is essential to plan for follow-up and continuous improvement with ongoing evaluation, not a one-time flurry," says Mastroianni. "An important piece of this should include is the person feeling better? Absent less? Getting their work completed and helping other employees more? These gains are priceless.

SOURCES

For more information on evaluating wellness programs, contact:

• Jonathan Dawe, Director, Safety, Health and Workers' Compensation, Simmons Bedding Company, Atlanta, GA. E-mail: jdawe@simmons.com

• Karen Mastroianni, RN, MPH, COHN - S, FAAOHN, Co-Owner and Health & Safety Strategist, Dimensions in Occupational Health & Safety, Raleigh, NC. Phone: (919) 676-2877 ext. 12. E-mail: karenm@dimensions-ohs.com.