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Employer Wellness Programs Reduce Costs by Targeting Chronic Diseases

Employer wellness programs should target chronic disease prevention and management to effectively reduce costs and improve the health of employees.

Employer wellness programs should target chronic diseases to achieve cost savings.

Source: Thinkstock

By Thomas Beaton

- In order to reduce overall spending, employers should focus on designing wellness programs that target chronic diseases and address other clinical factors impacting employee health, says a new research paper from Transamerica.

The findings from Transamerica suggest that employers sponsoring insurance can experience higher returns on investment if they develop wellness programs tailored to address specific chronic diseases.

Chronic diseases are extremely common among US adults. These long-term conditions are expensive, and they are likely to lead to further health complications for employees. Targeting chronic diseases through wellness programming could reduce the trillion-dollar healthcare burden employers face when providing health benefits to employees.

Bill Lloyd, MD, FACS, Advanced Markets Health Director at Transamerica, said that wellness programs targeted to chronic conditions are also effective in promoting business goals like improving employee productivity.

“The potential rewards for businesses that embrace workplace wellness are not limited to employee health cost savings. A healthy workforce that appreciates an overall sense of well-being, reinforced by management's concern for their continued good health, can directly contribute to the achievement of business goals,” Lloyd said.

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“Workplace wellness programs can be organized into lifestyle management and disease management silos. We've reviewed research that has shown that chronic disease management generates faster and larger cost savings. Businesses should consider focusing efforts on the most prevalent chronic health conditions: hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic spine pain.”

The researchers explained that employers need to familiarize themselves with risk factors that contribute to the development of chronic diseases in order to plan effective wellness programs.

Physical inactivity and poor fitness are key predictors of cardiovascular diseases as well as indicators of early death. Improving physical activity among employees can lead to significant benefits for employees’ overall health, the team said.

Employers should also be mindful of other chronic disease indicators including smoking, obesity, and alcohol use. The team estimated that these factors lead to healthcare costs of $360 billion a year.

Implementing wellness programs may be challenging for employers if they don’t invest in resources to engage employees, the team said.

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Employers that don’t invest in employee engagement could experience lackluster participation in wellness programs if employees feel that supervisors aren’t truly committed to developing the program.

“Workers are often skeptical of new campaigns — even those offering real value by focusing on those specific domains which spur better overall living. Well-planned communications and strong managerial support (i.e. active involvement by leadership) can favorably nurture the establishment of a culture of health, distinguishing well-planned workplace wellness programs from other short-lived jobsite campaigns or one-off experiments,” the team explained.

Employers can begin to implement effective and high-quality wellness programs once they understand their employees’ health concerns and invest in engagement channels to promote wellness programming.

Employers should first collect information from employees to understand their most concerning health risks.

Leveraging health and wellness information allows an employer to determine which wellness interventions are likely to succeed. An employer could consult a benefits manager, national organization, or other third-party expert to collect this information, the team suggested.

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Evidence-based interventions also require employers to promote effective engagement and hire support specialists.

Employers could administer wellness programs through a mix of wellness coaches, volunteers, web-based solutions, and face-to-face interactions. An effective wellness program should also provide opportunities for employees to socialize in order to encourage higher participation rates.

Employers starting to build out evidence-based wellness programs can begin by incorporating various benefits and facilities that promote healthy behaviors.

Employee wellness assessments, on-site nutritional guidance, and smoking cessation activities are ways to introduce wellness programs, the team suggested. In addition, employees can start to move the needle on effective wellness by investing in workplace exercise facilities, gym memberships, and other opportunities to improve physical activity.

Implementing an evidence-based workplace wellness program that focuses on chronic conditions can lead significant improvements in employer care costs.

The team found that Johnson & Johnson reported 3.7 percent lower average annual growth in total medical spending and saved between $1.88 and $3.92 for every dollar spent on wellness programs for 30,000 employees. Other large employers also managed to reduce care costs by tailoring wellness and fitness interventions for employees with high chronic disease risks.

“Good health is expensive. Chronic illness costs far more. A healthy workforce generates enhanced productivity and reduces direct and indirect operational costs to any business,” the team concluded.  

“Employee health-related expenditures are expected to continue to outpace inflation for the foreseeable future. Since net profits indicate the overall vitality of any business, those activities which reduce the aggregate economic burden related to employee health may further bolster the company’s success.”


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