Finding workplace wellness that works

Health Care & Wellness

COR Wellness leads GS Global Resources employees in yoga.

A few years ago, just 20 percent of GS Global Resources Inc.’s 175 employees opted to participate in the company’s wellness program.

The Mukwonago-based hydraulic equipment supplier was using a wellness program offered through its health insurance plan. The program itself was good, but employees just weren’t participating in a way that allowed the company to make meaningful progress to head off unnecessary claims or prevent chronic illnesses, said John Thornton, president of GS Global Resources.

“What we found lacking with just the insurance provider approach was engagement,” Thornton said. “It was a lack of personal engagement and someone being available and personally accountable to help you with your results.”

So GS went a step farther, contracting with a company that provides employers with an on-site chiropractic and wellness coach to help employees four days a week. The result: engagement has increased by more than 30 percent.

Dr. Bryan Muth, an on-site COR Wellness chiropractor, works with a GS Global Resources employee.

Wellness programs can inspire skepticism among employers, prompting questions such as: Will employees actually participate? Will it actually produce a return on investment by reducing health care claims and premium costs?

“The biggest challenge for any employer is when you look at investing in a new machine or technology or a service, you’re going to ask, ‘What’s my payback?’” Thornton said. “It’s a challenge to quantify the benefits of a wellness program. I’m a CPA by training; I’m naturally skeptical about numbers. I want to see proof … But we’ve seen that the results are there.

When done right, some employers are finding such programs can reduce health care costs over the long-term and serve as an employee attraction and retention tool in the current tight labor market.

“It’s very hard to find qualified people and when you find them, you want to keep them,” Thornton said. “For us it’s all about: How can we have the most productive employees here and get rid of obstacles to their productivity? Health and wellness is a huge part of that.”

Employers can often get stuck in an “old school” mindset when it comes to wellness programs that fail to connect with employees, said Jessica Ollenburg, managing partner of Milwaukee-based executive consulting firm Ollenburg LLC.

“It produces a shame spiral or can make people roll their eyes when they communicate (to employees). ‘You don’t think I know how to eat right, to drink water, etc.,’” Ollenburg said. “The best programs we’re seeing now are taking advantage of new information, new trends and the demographics of their employees.”

GS Global Resources’ participation rate, prior to making the change, was on par with many companies, in which 20 percent of employees reliably engage in the wellness program, according to Jamie Howard, chief commercial officer of Sussex-based COR Wellness LLC. The challenge for employers is engaging the “middle 60 percent,” he said.

“That’s where the bottom line is impacted dramatically,” Howard said.

COR Wellness’ program, which sends chiropractors and wellness coaches to companies, is able to capture employees that might not otherwise participate, thanks to the convenience and consistency of having clinicians on-site at their work. Chiropractic appointments typically last 10 to 15 minutes, while a wellness check-in might take up to 30 minutes, making it easy for employees to stop by when they have time during the day.

COR Wellness leads GS Global Resources employees in yoga.

COR Wellness representatives will shadow workers in every job function, from manual manufacturing workers to those sitting at a desk all day, to find ways to improve their health.

“The on-site model in the way we do it, is about not being reactive, not waiting for people to come see us because they are sick or hurt,” Howard said. “Driving people to work with us is the biggest key.”

It’s also important for employers to embrace an expanding definition of wellness, integrating financial wellness and emotional and mental health, Howard said.

“We work on everything from pain management to nutritional issues to fitness to cognitive health,” he said. “That’s what many miss in wellness programs: looking at how employees are dealing with stress and how it impacts their business.”

Ollenburg recommends employers review the effectiveness of their wellness programs no less than annually. A newly implemented program, she said, should show increasing engagement with each quarter, while existing programs should indicate greater effectiveness each year.

Company leaders should look for a program’s impact on health care and worker’s compensation claims, but also less tangible metrics, such as improvements to office culture and the holistic wellness of employees.

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.