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Employers betting heavier than ever on wellness

March 7, 2014

Employers are wary of what is going to happen to their healthcare costs in an Obamacare world. But that is not keeping them from doubling down on their investment in wellness. According to figures from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), employers are planning to spend 14% more on wellness in 2014 than they spent in 2013.

The figure for 2014, gleaned from a survey of 151 employers conducted in late 2013, works out to $594 per employee on wellness-based incentives compared to $521 in 2013. It is also well more than double what the figure was ($260) in 2009. Interestingly, the largest increase to ($595) came from employers with fewer than 5,000 employees—in other words large, but not the very largest, employers.

Nearly all the companies surveyed (95 percent) plan to offer some kind of health improvement program in 2014, and 74 percent of them will offer their employees some kind of incentive to participate in those programs.

Other indicators point to the fact that wellness programs are here to stay, and that employers believe in the efficacy of wellness to their bottom line. More than nine out of ten (93 percent) respondents expect to maintain or increase their funding levels over the next three to five years, and more than one-third (37 percent) will include spouses and domestic partners in their wellness programs in 2014.

Another interesting finding suggests that employers are closing the loop on incentivizing their employees with chronic health conditions to manage those conditions effectively. These employees usually have ongoing medical expenses related to their conditions. More than one-third (34 percent) of respondents indicated that they will contribute to an HSA (Health Savings Account) or FSA (Flexible Spending Account) for employees who agree to participate in a disease or care management program, 33 percent will do the same for participation in a stress management program and 30 percent for a weight management program.

In another survey by NBGH (this one conducted with The Futures Company), employees who work in strong cultures of health were more likely to say they have control over their health than those who work at companies where it is less of a priority (75 percent versus 63 percent). In addition, they were less likely to report that stress has a negative impact on their work (25 percent versus 49 percent). The report also showed a link between strong health cultures and general happiness. Sixty-six percent of employees in strong health cultures say they are extremely or very happy with their lives compared to just 32 percent of those in weak health cultures. In strong health culture companies, 72 percent had an annual physical in the past year and 62 percent exercised at least three days a week, compared to just 64 percent and 49 percent, respectively, of employees at organizations with weak cultures of health. Seventy-seven percent participated in wellness programs, compared to just 46 percent of those employed at companies where health is perceived to be a low priority.

Jenn Dubey, President of Evolve Corporate Wellness, recognizes the relationship between wellness and organizational culture, and applauds these indicators of the growing commitment to wellness programs by employers. According to Ms. Dubey, the problem is societal to begin with, and so the solution to it needs to be equally comprehensive. She points out that today about 70 percent of the average American’s diet comprises food from processed sources; and because technology has eliminated so many of the physical aspects of work, 60 percent of working Americans are basically sedentary—and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has labeled sitting a disease.

These are barriers to good health, but they have become “normal” for most Americans—meaning they have become woven into our culture. If you are going to change an aspect of an organization’s culture, the only way to do it is to establish different, more desirable behaviors as normal, and the only way to accomplish that is to be all-in as an organization when it comes to wellness. The second survey from NBGH clearly illuminates the relationship between employee wellness and organizational culture.

It appears that more and more employers have gotten that message and made the commitment to go all-in on wellness.

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