Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm
As worksite wellness programs grow in popularity, the membership of The Wellness Council of Wisconsin has doubled in the last two years. The Wellness Council aims to spread health and wellness awareness to businesses throughout Wisconsin and to aid business owners in the development of worksite wellness programs.
Founded in 1985, the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin affiliate of Wellness Councils of America struggled for years as it tried to convince employers to understand the value of a worksite wellness program and to convince them that every $1 invested in a wellness program really does save $3 in health care expenses, according to Deborah Seyler, executive director for the Wisconsin organization.
However, a combination of rising awareness of individual health needs and an increasing desire by employers to cut their health insurance costs has catapulted the council into the public eye.
Seyler, the only employee of the council, said the organization’s board of directors is considering hiring a second person to help with the influx of membership and calls. Employer inquiries also have shifted from questioning the value of a membership and wellness program to looking for the tools to get started on the right path. Some long-time members are even looking to enhance existing programs.
Seyler recently spoke with Small Business Times reporter Elizabeth Geldermann about the growing popularity of worksite wellness programs. The following are excerpts from that interview.
SBT: Are there other factors besides health care costs that are feeding the sudden momentum behind wellness programs, for instance a societal awareness or employee retention issues?
Seyler: "There are many benefits to a worksite wellness program, but certainly health care costs are what have the majority of employers looking seriously at health promotion right now. There are other employers who see this as an important benefit for recruitment and retention and they think it is important that the health and productivity of their employees contributes to the company bottom line. It is a ‘good health is good business’ kind of thing. Health care costs are what have grabbed everyone’s attention. Wellness programs came on the radar screen in the late 1990s when wellness made the list on national surveys from employers as a legitimate cost management strategy. It is a relatively recent phenomenon."
SBT: Does wellness awareness follow any sort of cycle? Was there a time where there was a high demand for wellness programs and the practice is making a comeback?
Seyler: "It has been an uphill battle since I became involved in the Wellness Council in the late 1980s. It seems like we have turned the corner in the last three or four years. I can tell from the questions I am getting from employers. The questions are not so much a matter of, ‘Convince me that health promotion makes good business sense,’ anymore. Employers have already come to that conclusion themselves, and now they are asking, ‘How do we do this?’ and, ‘How do we build a successful employee wellness program?’
"If employers already have an employee wellness program, they may be looking to take it to the next level and to really link health promotion to their business culture. I think that health promotion is here to stay as a trend. I think we have to embrace it, not just at the worksite, but as individuals, as a society, because it is never going to cost less to be sick. We have to start focusing on prevention, because that is really the only untapped resource we have left. It is really about choices and helping people realize that they have to take care of themselves, that you really have to take personal responsibility. How can you say you don’t have time to take care of yourself? Your self is all you really have."
SBT: What does a successful worksite wellness program entail?
Seyler: "One of the leading people in the field, Ron Goetzel, (director of the Cornell University Institute for Health and Productivity Studies and vice president of consulting and applied research at The Medstat Group Inc.) has talked a great deal about the cost of wellness. Goetzel said, and literature shows, that an employer should expect to spend from $100 to $150 per employee, per year, to have a successful wellness program. The components include a health risk appraisal and programming that employees can access, based on their risks, needs and interests, as well as incorporating some measurement of outcomes."
SBT: In general, is there a growing interest in healthy lifestyles in our society? For instance, I noticed that Universal Studios Inc. has a new marketing campaign on the Web site, www.iwantmyvacation.com. The campaign is targeting those that feel they deserve or need a vacation, and the Web site discusses the health risks of work-related stress.
Seyler: "Stress and depression are two of the highest cost risk factors, and literature supports that. There has been a lot of discussion about how over-stressed we are in corporate America today. I have not seen that commercial, but that is an interesting angle because the company is trying to pick up on this momentum that seems to be building when it comes to health. We are really seeing an emphasis on health now from all sectors, and hopefully this trend will help employees to be more receptive to the idea that we all have to take more personal responsibility for our health. If we don’t, who will?
"With the constant increase of insurance costs, it really is imperative that we take better care of ourselves. As obvious as it sounds, most of us have never given any thought to our health. We know we have to maintain our car. We know that we have to check the tire pressure and we have to check the oil, otherwise it is going to break down on us. But when it comes to ourselves, we don’t think about preventive maintenance. What an employee wellness program can do is provide people with the information and the encouragement to pursue healthier lifestyles and do things for themselves that are going to improve their quality of life, their productivity and hopefully reduce their health care expenses."
SBT: Can you document the rising popularity of wellness programs in your growth as an organization?
Seyler: "We can. Five or six years ago, we would add 25 new members in an average year. We have added over 60 new members in each of the last two years, and that is our goal again this year. We already have seven new members this year, so I think we can definitely see that something has happened. Our largest area of growth in the Wellness Council has been small manufacturers. I think a past perception was that wellness programs were only affordable to larger employers. I would say you can’t afford not to have a wellness program. Issues like productivity and absenteeism are more important to a small employer because the employer relies on every single person there, and I think the employers are beginning to realize this. Small employers do not have three or four people in a department to get the job done. They may be relying on one person. It is all the more important for small employers to embrace health promotion. Small employers are doing as good or a better job with health promotion than large employers because in some ways it is easier for them. Communication is easier, and they may have a better relationship with employees."
SBT: Is the council just looking to help businesses build their programs or are you also looking to have legislative influence?
Seyler: "Our focus is working with employers. We are not a political entity. We do not do lobbying and that sort of thing. Our focus is really on the worksite and to encourage and assist employers with their wellness programs. Through our national organization, we are involved in some movements that may ultimately result in legislative changes to benefit employers. For example, there is already legislation in some states, Florida for one, where insurance companies are required to provide an incentive to employers who have a successful wellness program. Some employers are becoming much more aggressive with their incentives, and some offer employees a reduction in premium or require a health risk appraisal before joining the health care program."
SBT: Is the council changing as the employer membership increases?
Seyler: "We continue to evolve as circumstances change, and right now a lot of our resources are geared toward employers who are just getting started. We also have a lot of information and resources for employers who are looking to enhance their program or to take their program to the next level. I think it is important that we not only have the fundamental information that employers need, but also that we continue to stay on top of the trends and offer programming. For example, bringing in some of the most recognized speakers in the country so that area employers can benefit from their expertise."
SBT: Are there specific trends in worksite wellness programs, both new and enhanced?
Seyler: "One of the biggest changes that I have seen is that employers are now incorporating a health risk appraisal into their wellness program. Health risk appraisals are something that even a few years ago employers felt were too costly. Yet, today employers see that health risk appraisals provide employers with a benchmark so they can evaluate what the company has accomplished over time. Appraisals also give employers a snapshot of their employee population that they can use for programming.
"Employers are also much more serious when it comes to health promotion and are interested in doing it right so they can realize a return on investment. Employers are looking into offering an online component for their wellness programs to accommodate multiple shifts and multiple locations within a company.
"Education and communication is a big part of every wellness program and an employer has to do a good job of educating employees. An employer may have a program, and employees may not take advantage of it, but at least the employees know the program is there."
(Additional information about The Wellness Council of Wisconsin is available at www.wellnesscouncilwi.org.)
February 18, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI