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Maximizing Employee Engagement in Wellness Programs Through Best Practice Wellness Program Design

By: Ryan L. Turnbull, MBA

Employer-sponsored Wellness programs have seen a resurgence in recent years; a trend that is expected to continue in an effort to curb escalating healthcare premiums and attract and retain top talent. Unfortunately, far too many Wellness programs fail to achieve the desired employee participation and return on investment due to poor upfront planning and design.

Given that a successful Wellness program can result in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in healthcare premium savings, employers must be strategic to design a Wellness program that will appeal to the majority of employees, not just a few.

One of the biggest challenges facing employers these days lies in navigating the Wellness vendor marketplace. Unfortunately, much of the Wellness program provider space has evolved into a “product-driven” marketplace that offers primarily off-the-shelf, high-priced, online programming that claims to provide a “one size fits all” workplace Wellness solution. Be leery. “One size fits all” seldom translates into Wellness program success.

A comment given by Dr. Peter Tippett at the 2012 HIMSS Health IT Conference sums it up well: “Whatever it is we think is going to work for most will work for only a few. but not most.” This holds true for your employee Wellness program. If designed effectively, your Wellness program will offer a variety of custom Wellness tools and services such that there is something that will appeal to any employee, regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, or ethnicity.

Follow this process, and your Wellness program should adequately address the needs of your employees, secure ongoing majority employee participation, and deliver a return on Wellness investment.

Phase I: Wellness Program Investigative Audit

Successful Wellness program design begins with a thorough investigation of one’s workplace culture, along with an accurate identification of employee Wellness desires, needs, and potential roadblocks to success. Don’t presume. Conduct an audit before you design your Wellness program.

If you already have an existing Wellness program in place, take a moment to review participation and obtain employee feedback on each Wellness program component. Eliminate Wellness program components that aren’t being used and improve on those in demand by employees by addressing issues with vendors or replacing underperforming vendors. This serves as an opportunity to reallocate funds to new Wellness services that will better serve employee needs.

If this is your first attempt at designing an employee Wellness program, devise a strategy to identify employee needs. Typical tools include a questionnaire, focus groups, one-on-one employee interviews, or a combination of all three. My preference is for one-on-one interviews where feasible, as it allows the interviewer to probe employees to identify the cultural issues, management styles, and other internal— issues that truly serve as barriers to employee participation in the Wellness program.

Finally, be sure to analyze your healthcare claims (if you have access to them). Identity those medical conditions that have a significant impact on your healthcare claims, and use that information to target Wellness program interventions, education, and communications.

Phase II: Design Your Wellness Program (based on what you learned in your Wellness audit)

Once you have clearly identified healthcare cost drivers and employee Wellness needs, you can now successfully design your Wellness program. A best practice Wellness program offers a variety of tools, resources, interventions, and educational resources to offer something that will appeal to any employee.

Be sure to carefully consider each of the following core Wellness program components when designing your program, and how to customize each to your organization’s unique culture, including opportunities to engage in fitness, employee awareness of health risks, use of technology to support Wellness, challenges and competition, marketing and communications, program evaluation, nutritional education and resources, healh coaching, securing executive support, incentives and disincentives, compliance, and sources of funding.

Phase III: Vendor Selection

Once you feel comfortable with the design of your Wellness program, be sure to carefully assess vendors who can successfully support the implementation of your Wellness vision. Your benefits broker or Wellness consultant ought to have his pulse on the Wellness vendor space to identity those that can best meet your needs. If not, consider a new broker/consultant.

Compare multiple vendors on quality, cost, and references. Keep in mind that bigger doesn’t always mean better. Though not guaranteed, sometimes an independent local Wellness vendor can offer a cost effective solution to your needs while providing additional value by developing a relationship with employees that goes beyond the brick and mortar of your organization. Such relationships serve to reinforce Wellness objectives long term.

Phase IV: Implementation

Be prepared to allocate the resources needed for successful implementation. Assign someone within your organization to oversee implementation and to manage vendor delivery of Wellness programming.

In the end, one size does not fit all. A Wellness program is only as effective as its ability to meet the needs of one’s unique employee culture and its ability to break down the barriers to employee participation.

When designing your Wellness program, or attempting to improve on a poorly designed one—that lacks employee support and participation—take a step back to be sure you truly know what will work for your employees. Doing so will allow you to tailor your Wellness strategy to meet their needs. Build it right to begin with and you can achieve majority employee participation and return on investment with minimal use of costly incentives and expensive vendor platforms. Build it poorly and you may end up spending thousands on ineffective Wellness programming.