Studies show wellness cuts disability costs
It’s just another benefit of health promotion
It has been a long, hard struggle for wellness proponents to prove the ultimate value of health promotion programming in terms of employee health and well-being. In the early days of wellness — say, the 1980s — even the companies that had such programs tended to look upon them as benefits that were nice to have, but nothing a company would need to have. As the ’90s unfolded, more evidence came forward demonstrating that wellness did, in fact, contribute to a reduction in health insurance costs/claims, helping to move wellness into the need to have category for a growing number of companies.
Now, it seems, there is a growing body of evidence that health promotion also can contribute to a reduction in disability costs, according to Don R. Powell, PhD, president and CEO of the Farmington Hills, MI-based American Institute for Preventive Medicine, a wellness consulting firm. "First of all, when you look at disability and loss control, programs that provide a safe and healthy work environment for employees can reduce the number, severity, and cost of workplace injuries and illnesses," he reports. "Work site wellness is designed to help employees change their lifestyle to improve health and reduce costs."
Powell adds that improved employee health and cost reductions "overlap in major ways," adding, "clearly we’ve now been able to see a relationship not only to health care costs, but to issues related to disability management."
He points to one study conducted by Xerox between 1996 and 1999, involving 3,338 employees. "They looked at the association between health risks and workers’ comp costs and lost injury days," he notes. "They found that 7.9% of all employees incurred workers’ comp claims, and among those, 26% had lost injury days. Then, they looked at HRA [health risk appraisal] participants only — only 5.6% had workers’ comp claims vs. 8.9% of non-HRA participants."1
The natural assumption is, Powell adds, that if employees are made aware of a health risk by taking an HRA, they will do something about it. Additional findings seem to bear him out; the Xerox study found among that among HRA participants, 4.9% of those who had low risks had workers’ comp claims; of those with median risk, 5.5% had claims; high-risk had 8.2%.1 "This clearly shows a link between healthy lifestyle and decreased workers’ comp claims," Powell asserts. "And if you can improve [the risk levels of] those medium- and high-risk people, you will further improve your claims as well."
Fewer disability days
Another study Powell cites examined health promotion and disability days at a manufacturing company. "This was conducted over a five-year period with a working population of 4,189, of which 2,596 participated," he reports. "They found a savings of $623,000 per year, or a return on investment of 2.3-to-1 in terms of the decrease in disability absence days [days of missed work factoring in participation in a wellness program]."2
A third study, by Hughes Electronics, examined wellness and short-term disability. "Participants in the wellness program had a significant percentage reduction in short-term disability," says Powell.
While conceding the benefit is tough to define, he says what is being shown in these studies is "where what we saw in the early days of wellness were healthier employees, we now also have decreased workers’ comp claims."
The benefits, Powell adds, go above and beyond just health care cost reduction, impacting reduced absenteeism — "Whether for colds and flu or decreased workers’ comp claims."
Explaining the connection
Why does wellness impact workers’ comp claims as well as health care costs? "Wellness helps employees lead healthier lifestyles; they quit smoking, lose weight, lower their blood pressure, and in general become more physically fit," Powell explains. "Those employees who are more fit and not overweight will avoid back injuries and musculoskeletal disorders, as well as major disabilities like heart attacks," he adds.
This, then, becomes another reason for companies to institute or expand their wellness programs, says Powell, and also explains why wellness is now being integrated into other areas of company management — benefits, occ-health, and even the work/life area. "Wellness now transcends more than one corporate department," he notes. "If a company can justify footing the bill for a wellness program that can decrease costs in more than one area of the company, that’s all the more rationale to go ahead with it," he concludes.
1. Fontaine K, Redden D, Wang C, et al. Years of life lost due to obesity. JAMA 2003; 289:187-193.
2. Schultz AB, Lu C, Barnett TE. Influence of participation in a worksite health-promotion program on disability days. JOEM 2002; 44:776-780.