All’s Well That Ends with Worker Wellness

Health, or more specifically, wellness, is the more often overlooked part of the health and safety equation.

It’s worthwhile for organizations to bring wellness to the fore of health and safety efforts since the chronic health conditions of employees are significant cost drivers for companies of all sizes. Employers who implement an effective, integrated, comprehensive workplace wellness program can have a substantial positive impact on health-related factors that drag down worker productivity: absenteeism, presenteeism, poor morale and employee turnover that result from poorly-managed chronic health conditions and risk factors like smoking, stress, poor sleep habits, inactivity and obesity. So, here’s the bottom line on workplace wellness: it can be an important component of your efforts to improve worker productivity.

It’s important to know, whether you are putting a wellness program in place or improving your existing program, what issues could affect your program’s effectiveness. To maximize the return on your wellness investment, pay attention to these easy-to-overlook components:

Self-selection is a problem. Healthier employees are more likely to participate wellness programs than workers who are less healthy – and workers who know they have a chronic health condition are less likely to sign up. If you structure your program in a way that offers positive incentives and is carefully protective of worker privacy, you’re more likely to catch those reluctant workers.

Smokers are more likely to stay away. One of the most important things an individual can do to improve their health status is to stop smoking, and many wellness programs include multiple smoking cessation strategies. But a controlled, randomized study done in Illinois found that smokers were among the least likely participants in a wellness program, which could limit the positive impact of the program.  It may take a deliberate, determined effort to engage smokers in your program.

Results may take a while. The same study that found smokers were less likely to sign on to a wellness program also identified virtually zero benefit from the studied program in the first year. Researchers intend to continue the study for four more years, suggesting that the benefits may simply take longer to show up. This may be especially true if you’re reaching a high number of higher-risk workers, so be patient.

Anti-discrimination laws affect the penalties and incentives you can offer. To protect workers with disabilities and workers’ medical privacy, there are restrictions on the kinds of information employers can collect about workers and how it can be used. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) allowed generous exceptions to these limitations for workplace wellness programs: employers were allowed to offer incentives or penalties amounting to as much as 30 percent of the cost of individual coverage to encourage workers to disclose protected health information, provided such disclosures were a voluntary part of a workplace wellness program. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against these exceptions in December 2017. The court found that a 30 percent incentive was large enough that employees who could not afford to pay the full amount were not voluntarily disclosing their protected health information. Such incentives and penalties will no longer be allowed after January 1, 2019. The court has ordered the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to revise its rules regarding wellness programs and privacy protection before 2021.

Don’t overlook MSDs. Wellness programs focus on chronic conditions and lifestyle diseases, and rightly so, since these are among the primary drivers of illness, reduced productivity and increased healthcare spending. However, adding MSDs to the mix has the potential to further enhance your program’s results. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, back pain is responsible for 290 million lost work days each year, and more than $600 billion in health care costs. One study that looked at wellness programs in the United States and the United Kingdom suggested that MSDs and chronic pain management may be the largest cost driver that is not presently being addressed by workplace wellness programs.

Learn more about what your organization can do to support and promote the good health of employees. Download the report: Wellness in the Workplace a Key to Good Health and Great Worker Performance.

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