Employee Wellness Programs Undergo Revolutionary Shift

As wellness programs take more innovative approaches that incorporate physical, mental, and financial health, advisers can stand to gain by connecting plan sponsors with the most innovative providers.

As health care costs continue to rise and financial insecurity becomes a leading stressor for thousands of Americans, employers are now taking a more holistic approach to developing wellness programs. According to a recent survey by provider Virgin Pulse, 76% of employers now offer wellness programs that address physical, mental, and financial health.

Although the financial piece is a relatively new component of total wellness programs, it may be long overdue. In an interview with PLANADVISER, Travis Freeman, CFP, President of Four Seasons Financial Education, revealed some yet-to-be-published survey findings on the impact of financial stress on health.

The company found that 66% of employees who had high levels of financial stress reported feeling depressed, compared with only 17% for those with low levels. Among the group with high levels of financial stress, 72% reported anxiety, 46% reported sleeplessness, and 25% reported memory loss. The latest employee financial-wellness survey by PricewaterhouseCoppers reflects these results finding that 52% of employees reported financial insecurity. Twenty-eight percent said it was affecting their health, and another 28% said it was a distraction at work.

Clearly, there is room for improvement in addressing employees’ financial wellness. In turn, this can have a positive impact on employee well-being, employer health care costs, and a company’s return on investment (ROI). But, how can employers create these holistic wellness programs while justifying their costs and measuring their impact?

NEXT: Using technology and employee satisfaction

A recent study by the RAND Corporation argues that the real savings come from disease-management programs, or the kinds that help at-risk employees avoid chronic illnesses and help chronically ill employees stabilize their conditions. While studying 10 years of data from a Fortune 100 employer, RAND found that disease management, as opposed to lifestyle management, accounted for 86% of hard savings in health care costs—generating $136 in savings per member, per month and a 30% reduction in hospital visits. The firm concluded that lifestyle programs like the ones focusing on weight management and nutrition ultimately failed to drive significant behavioral change. 

Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse, argues that employers may be able to overcome this obstacle by leveraging technology to personalize the wellness experience. His firm offers clients an interactive and customizable platform along with an app., which employees can use to pursue specific lifestyle goals such as being more active or getting more sleep. They can also track their progress digitally. Furthermore, the platform promotes emotional well-being through community action, something Boyce predicts will become even more important for employers in the years to come.  

“The key is finding consumer-facing products that change behavior and that people actually like and use,” says Boyce.  

Four Seasons Financial Education also puts a digital spin on financial wellness by offering online content, financial calculators, and short videos centered on personal finance. Furthermore, the firm provides clients with its proprietary Financial Health Assessment, an electronically administered assessment that asks about retirement confidence, emergency savings, and other finance-related questions. This is used to develop a personal, financial-wellness roadmap for employees.  

But while employers can measure the impact of a health-related wellness programs through health screenings and analyzing employee health care expenses, putting a gauge on workers’ financial wellness may be a bit difficult. Freeman suggests analyzing turnover. “Have exit interviews and ask why people are leaving. If you find that fewer people are leaving for reasons involving pay, what that tells us is that your financial wellness program is probably showing people how to maximize the pay their company is giving them.”  

Periodic third-party surveys of the employee population may also offer some insight into the more complex benefits of employee wellness programs, such as heightened well-being and increased satisfaction at work. The study by Virgin Pulse offered some sobering commentary on the matter.  

The survey concluded that “employees overwhelmingly agree that their benefits offerings make them more appreciative and loyal to their companies.” Because of these programs, employees reported feeling positive about work culture (90%), energetic and productive at work (78%), and appreciated (67%). Furthermore, 65% of employees surveyed said they were both happier and healthier after participating in these programs.  

Some of the most desired perks included health club memberships (44%), healthy food options on site (41%), and education around proper nutrition (37%). The most used included biometric screenings (66%) and physical-activity programs (51%).  

But despite the wealth of choices available for developing a holistic wellness program, communication is still critical for its success. Here too, technology can play an important role.  

NEXT: Awareness drives participation

According to the Virgin Pulse survey, employees’ preferred methods of digesting information about wellness programs are via email (86%) and through the company intranet/website (51%). These are also the top two methods used by employers surveyed.

However, Boyce suggests there is still room for improvement. “HR communications has to be more personalized and targeted.” His own firm approaches this task by directing certain wellness-program information toward the employees who most likely would be interested in it based on what they feed into the platform.

“Let’s say I’m interested in reducing stress and we have an EAP program where you can get counseling online to reduce stress,” Boyce alludes. “The platform would recommend it to you if you’re interested based on what it knows about you in the system.”

Another important factor to consider is frequency. The survey found that most employees hear about their benefits on an annual or monthly basis (28%). Freeman argues the former may not be the best approach, especially when it comes to education-based components like financial wellness programs. “If you speak to employees about having better financial habits once a year, it’s just not enough,” Freeman explains.

“What we offer now is a combination of short videos. People are not going to sit through an hour-long presentation. But what we find is that a lot of companies still believe that’s what their employees want.”

Virgin Pulse recommends a variety of push and pull communication methods that utilize multimedia. As for the future of wellness programs, several providers predict it will continuously be more holistic and geared toward the emotional and social well-being of employees, while leveraging the innovations that lie ahead.  

“I think that corporations are going to lean into gamifying,” Boyce explains. “I think that the world of human capital management and all that’s already happening in the world of well-being will merge together. I think what clients want is a platform that will let them support their employees in growing and learning more in a variety of different ways.”

He also pointed to providers focusing on better ways to show these wellness programs can be effective in boosting employee productivity and overall well-being.

“One of my biggest fears is that there are a lot of wellness practitioners that are not good at showing those outcomes,” Boyce explains. “We believe that if you change behavior, you can change the output for individuals and for organizations. The industry as a whole needs to get more sophisticated in their ability to show those changes.”

"The Business of Healthy Employees: A 2016 Survey of Workplace Health Priorities" can be found at Connect.Virginpulse.com

"PricewaterhouseCoopers' 2016 Employee Financial Wellness Survey" can be found at PWC.com

The RAND Corporation brief "Do Workplace Wellness Programs Save Employers Money?" can be found at RAND.org