More evidence shows wellness cost benefits

Save $16 per $1 spent

Yet another study — this one from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT — gives more ammunition to occupational health and wellness managers who seek to prove their programs’ value to employers.

The study, led by Steven Aldana, PhD, BYU health promotions director, indicates that employers can save nearly $16 for every dollar spent on wellness and health promotion at the workplace.

"This is just another reason companies should offer and encourage participation in wellness programs," he says. "Many corporations use health promotion programs as a reactionary effort to curtail ever-increasing, employee-related expenses of health care and lost productivity. This new information provides additional evidence why companies should help employees have healthy lifestyles."

The BYU study was published in the March issue of Preventive Medicine, but it comes as no surprise to those working in the employee wellness world. They say the data are getting stronger and stronger with each new study.

"We’ve done considerable research, maybe more than anyone in the world, on the issue, and our data continues to be positive," says David Anderson, PhD, vice president of program strategy for St. Paul, MN-based StayWell Health Management.

"There have been several new studies that are even better than what we’ve seen in the past, [showing] as much as $450 savings per employee in a company that is just two years into [a wellness] program," he adds.

Todd A. Cipriani, MS, president of the board of the Wellness Council of Rhode Island, points out that employers are learning that to reap the benefits of a healthy work force doesn’t always mean a big budgetary layout.

"It doesn’t always take a big front-end investment; you don’t need a shotgun approach," Cipriani says. "More and more companies are getting that message and becoming true believers. They are tracking the data and seeing the financial benefits."

The BYU researchers determined that depending on a company’s size, between 2.5 % and 4.5% of the money spent on salaries goes to absent employees. By implementing wellness programs, Aldana estimates that companies can save millions of dollars annually.

The study examined the health claims costs and absenteeism of 6,246 employees and retirees from the Washoe County School District in Reno, NV, during a six-year period. Employees’ participation in the school district’s wellness program was associated with an estimated savings of more than $3 million in absenteeism costs when compared with nonparticipants.

"Findings like these are important because, although investment in health promotion is not large, it has a large payback for organizations," according to Cipriani.

Anderson says that as employers embrace the idea that spending money on health promotion is a good investment, wellness programs are evolving.

"Today’s programs are much better than they were five or 10 years ago," he says. "They are showing uniformly very good results, assuming they’re well implemented and include the building blocks of a good, solid program."

The rise of wellness and health promotion is the natural result of employers "having tried everything on the health care plan side, as far as managing the supply of health care," Anderson points out.

Despite the use of pharmacy benefits managers, managed care, and utilization control, costs keep increasing, and employers look for more ways to keep their employees healthy and costs down.

"What we’ve seen in the last three years is the real rapid adoption of the idea that we need to shift our focus from producers of care to consumers of care," he says.

This is resulting in three main approaches, according to Anderson:

• proliferation of disease management programs, through which employers focus on chronic diseases and management of clinical issues related to chronic disease;

• consumer-driven health concepts, such as health spending accounts, in an attempt to get employees to act like consumers who are shopping for good health with their own money;

• more strategic and comprehensive health management strategies that are targeted and well-managed, rather than "scattershot" programs of a class here and a meeting there.

"If we can get people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, their health will improve and they will live longer. Death can be postponed by 10 to 20 years," says Aldana.

"They will lose weight, experience less diabetes, dramatically lower their risk for cancer, and considerably improve the quality of their lives," he continues.

Duke University in Durham, NC, has operated its Live For Life health fitness program for more than 15 years, and has depended on hard data to keep it going and focused on what works, according to program manager Julie Joyner.

"Our Pathways to Change program is targeting people at risk for high blood pressure, and they work with a leader for a year," she says.

"In a year, we’ve seen 85% if participants decrease their risk, and 15% come completely out of risk. It’s only been going two years, so we’ll need to look at it over time, but we’re pleased," Joyner explains.

Life For Life services 24,000 people in the six-mile radius of Duke’s campus. The program achieves its 54% participation rate by not waiting on employees to come to the program.

"We are set up with a truck to travel to the employees," Joyner says. "We get them in their breakrooms, we wait outside operating rooms in the medical center and catch the staff as they are coming out.

"That gets us over the barrier of getting them to come to us — we go to them. So our biggest challenge is just the size of the population we serve."

As for cost savings from the Pathways to Change program alone, Duke invested $28,175, or $175 per participant. The estimated savings, before costs, was $38,477, or $353 per participant, for a net savings of $10,302.

Cipriani, who works as vice president for professional services at Newport (RI) Hospital, is quick to say that employers are not merely driven by money.

"The financial stuff helps them get started, but the financial reason is not why most companies do wellness promotion," he says. "They have to get [the initial cost] off their plate as a disadvantage, but the driver is good leaders running good companies, who know that it’s a good thing to do."

A captive audience

The workplace is a natural place for promoting wellness, since that’s where the people are, adds Cipriani.

"A good percentage of people want a healthful environment; they don’t need to be convinced," he says. "They don’t want to smoke, or be overweight. So if the employer provides a culture and facilities and an environment that encourages that, they don’t have to worry about changing employees’ behavior, because that will come later."

Joyner says Duke’s philosophy of making wellness as convenient as possible has paid off in the rate of participation by employees.

"We put ourselves where people naturally gather, and during orientation we let people know who to find us so they know how to tap into those resources," she says.

As many components as possible are made available on-line, so they are not hindered by 9-to-5 hours, Joyner adds. The smoking cessation program offers five different options, from phone to on-line to live components, so smokers who want to quit can get started whenever and wherever they decide they’re ready.

Anderson says while it took American employers a while to truly warm up to the idea of health promotion as a means of saving money and lives, the growth of programs has escalated rapidly in recent years.

"It is happening very quickly and, in fact, over the next 24 months I would say virtually every Fortune 1000 company is in the process of implementing a program, enhancing an existing program, or are in the planning stages of a new program," he says. "So we are seeing a huge amount of movement in the markets, lots of growth and interest.

"With all this change, I suspect the data will keep getting better and employers will recognize that keeping people healthy has lots of benefits," Anderson notes.

[For more information, contact:

  • Steven Aldana, PhD, Director, Health Promotions, Department of Exercise Science, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT. Phone: (801) 422-2145. E-mail: steve_aldana@byu.edu.
  • David Anderson, PhD, Vice President, Program Strategy and Development, StayWell Health Management, 2700 Blue Water Road, Suite 850, St. Paul, MN 55121. Phone: (800) 373-3577.
  • Todd A. Cipriani, MS, President, Worksite Wellness Council of Rhode Island; Vice President, Professional Services, Newport (RI) Hospital. Phone: (401) 222-5112. E-mail: wellri@wwcri.org.
  • Julie Joyner, Senior Contract Manager, Live For Life Health Fitness Corp., Duke University, Durham, NC. E-mail: julie.joyner@duke.edu.]