Whatever you call them, wellness programs work

More employers reap benefits of prevention

Occupational health providers may grow weary of coming up with catchy new names for their walk-a-thons, bike-to-work weeks, Dump-Your-Plump months, and walk-at-lunch weeks, but the effort is worthwhile. The programs work, says D.W. Edington, MD, director of the Health Management Research Center (HMRC) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

These week-long and month-long programs reflect an employer’s commitment to workplace wellness programs, and it’s a commitment that has increasingly become a year-round phenomenon for thousands of employers, Edington says. He presented advice on the worth of such wellness programs at the research center’s recent Wellness in the Workplace Conference in Ann Arbor.

Spend money now to save it later

"Corporations now see health management programs as the only long-term alternative to the continuing escalation of medical care costs. Nearly 60% of all companies and 95% of large companies have programs designed to encourage individuals to take some responsibility for their own health," Edington says.

"There is greater return from investment in preventing healthy people from slipping into poor health behaviors than by trying to make chronically sick people well. Individuals benefit in terms of less pain and suffering and a higher quality of life. The corporation benefits in terms of less medical care costs and greater productivity," he notes.

Employers were first introduced to the concept of investing in health promotion programs in the 1970s. By the 1980s, employers were spending $5 per employee per year on workplace wellness programs. Today they’re shelling out $60 per employee for year-round programs that range from smoking cessation programs to lessons in handling stress.

The cost: 1% to 2% of typical medical care costs. Workplace wellness programs have caught on. They are more than a trend, more than an experimental program of employers who know they can trim health care costs and improve productivity by providing an environment where employees remain healthy. Employees like the programs because exercising, eating right, and relaxing make them feel better. Employers like such programs because happier, healthier employees are more productive and cost less.

HMRC research shows that workplace wellness programs save employers $80 to $225 per employee per year in medical care costs and an equal amount in productivity gains.

"Work-site health management programs are part of the new way to do health care in America," Edington says. "Everyone benefits, and it is truly one of the classic win-win situations for all the stakeholders."