Employee Health: Why Wellness Works

HealthyWage administers outcomes-based wellness challenges for companies like Geokinetics, a Houston-based geophysical solutions company that serves the oil and
mining industries. Given the price of oil, Geokinetics has had a rough go of it over the past few years, including a Chapter 11 restructuring in 2013 and a significant reduction in headcount. “At a time when we’re asking employees to wear two and three hats, we have to acknowledge that we’re creating a stress level that didn’t exist before,” says CEO David Crowley.

That exercise and healthy diet can help mitigate stress was just one of the reasons Crowley began looking for a program three years ago that would incentivize a healthy lifestyle among his employees. He also needed something low-cost. With HealthyWage’s solutions, companies can spend almost no cash if they choose not to subsidize. Employees pay a small fee to participate, but then get it back if they meet their stated weight loss or fitness goal. They can also win prizes from HealthyWage.

“It helps morale and the camaraderie that goes along with that,” says Crowley. Plus, Cigna, the company’s health insurance provider, said that participants will earn a discount on premiums down the road.

Humana offers a similar premium discount to participants in its Go365 wellness program, up to 15% off based on level of engagement. The company rolled the program out internally in 2011 and then set out to measure the impact on those who more actively used the program vs. those who did not. Over a three-year period, engaged users had a 20% reduction in sick time; health claims costs decreased 10% among engaged users, while increasing 17% for unengaged employees. On the other hand, unengaged users had 56% more emergency room visits and 37% more hospital visits than engaged users, says Stuart Slutzky, chief of product innovation at Go365, an entity set up by Humana to offer its members wellness programs.

At the Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA 1), which uses Humana’s Go365, 86% of 175 employees have reached the engagement level needed for a reduction in premiums. “As an agency, we’ve saved $300,000 in premiums over the last five years,” says Mary Gavigan, executive director. Reported cases of diabetes have fallen 55%, and sick time fell 15% over the last year alone. “It’s been great for our staff, it’s great for the agency, and it brings a positive, healthy sense of well-being into the climate of the agency. This has become a part of who we are now.”

CEO Bill Donnell reports similar positive results from investment in employee wellness at the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), which provides information and services to insurance providers related to workers’ compensation.

In addition to a fitness facility and onsite cafeteria with healthy choices, employees can visit a wellness center to get their blood pressure reading, annual biometric screenings, nutrition counseling and personal health coaching. While healthcare expenses have gone up over the past eight years, NCCI has seen a lower increase relative to the market, which Donnell is satisfied with—because saving on healthcare isn’t the main driver for him. “Some of the soft factors that are perhaps more difficult to measure but more important, like the engagement of employees and the energy level they have when they’re here—you get payback from that, in my view,” he says.

Beyond Wellness to “Well-Being”
That notion has gained considerable traction in recent years, leading some companies to expand their focus beyond healthcare and basic wellness to take a more holistic view of employee well-being. Michael Thompson, CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, says some well-intentioned programs have fallen short of expectation because their focus has been too narrowly on risk mitigation or cost reduction, which isn’t all that motivating to employees.