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Making Workplace Wellness Count

By Dick Resch | 12/30/2016, 6 a.m.
Going to the gym is about to get a lot more expensive. That's because the share of companies offering wellness ...
Employers can save themselves millions through wellness programs by finding ways to boost workers' low participation rates. Every dollar spent on wellness programs reduces medical costs by over $3, according to a Health Affairs study. Metro Creative Graphics

— Going to the gym is about to get a lot more expensive. That's because the share of companies offering wellness programs dropped 13 percent this year. These programs— which often include subsidized gym memberships, free fitness trackers, and bonuses for losing weight— keep employees healthy, thereby cutting medical and insurance expenses. At least that's the theory.

In practice, many companies aren't seeing a return on their wellness investments. So they're ditching the programs.

That's a mistake. Employers can save themselves millions through wellness programs. They just need to find ways to boost workers' low participation rates.

Properly designed wellness programs pad companies' bottom lines. Every dollar spent on wellness programs reduces medical costs by over $3, according to a Health Affairs study.

Of course, the programs only work if employees participate. Right now, four in 10 workers opt out. A majority of those employees say they don't have enough time to take part. And 43 percent say the program locations are too inconvenient.

In response to such concerns, some companies are bringing healthy choices right to workers' offices.

For instance, Blue Shield California stocks the cafeteria with nutritious food and provides sit-stand and treadmill desks. Eighty percent of employees now participate in the wellness program. Over a four-year period, employees' physical activity rates increased 32 percent and high blood pressure rates dropped 66 percent.

Other businesses rely on teamwork and a dose of healthy peer pressure to increase participation. Take Bazaarvoice, a software service company in Austin, Texas.

Employees earn points— redeemable for gift cards and other perks— for healthy behaviors, such as undergoing yearly checkups or exercising.

Crucially, employees gain more points when they complete group activities, such as attending a fitness class with their team. Since implementing this team-based framework, participation has skyrocketed. Management anticipates reduced insurance and medical costs as a result.

It's essential that companies don't make employees compete for a prize. That's a sure-fire way to increase apathy instead of enthusiasm.

That's why my company, furniture manufacturer KI, measures and rewards employees individually. We set specific goals for each employee based on an initial health screening. If they meet their benchmarks, they earn back a portion of their health insurance premiums. The financial incentives and individually tailored goals are a large reason KI boasts a nearly 100 percent wellness program participation rate.

The program saves our company serious money. We spend $2.2 million on the wellness program and save $3.3 million a year on insurance premiums— a return on investment of 50 percent. Our annual health costs per employee are 24 percent lower than the national average.

If companies aren't reaping benefits from their wellness programs, they should look to boost participation before axing the initiatives. Companies can't simply hand out Fitbits— they need to find ways to ensure the fitness trackers wind up on employees' wrists, instead of in their dressers.

Dick Resch is CEO of Wisconsin-based manufacturer KI.