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Healthy workforce key insurance benefits issue

Michelle Hicks

Michelle Hicks

I know many benefit and HR leaders are trying to understand the specific impacts of health care reform on their plans for 2011. It’s tough right now. Open enrollment begins for most companies in just a couple of months and new rules are issued by the Department of Labor almost every day.

But while you consider the impacts of reform on your plan designs, it might also be worth pondering what’s behind the need for health care reform in the first place – escalating costs. Our current health care system is not sustainable if costs continue to increase. In 1990, health care accounted for 11.9 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Today, it is 17.3 percent. That’s $2.5 trillion with a “t” spent in 2009.

While there are many, many cost drivers – from lack of coordination among service providers to expensive cutting-edge treatments – there is another critical cost component that is predicted to only get worse if we don’t control it: our unhealthy lifestyles.

Take obesity. According to the F as in Fat 2009 report by the Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, obesity rates among adults now top 25 percent in more than 31 states. Some predict this generation of children will be the first to not live as long as their parents due to obesity and obesity-related diseases like diabetes. If we don’t get control of our unhealthy behaviors as a country, there will be no economy to worry about because there will be no workforce healthy enough to sustain it.

That doom and gloom scenario may still seem far off. But there are direct costs to business right now in lost productivity. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy estimates lost productivity costs associated with overweight and obese workers were $8.2 billion in 2009, and lost productivity costs associated with physical inactivity were $12.3 billion – in California alone.

Employer-sponsored wellness and disease management programs can have an impact on reversing this trend. A recent study by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers found exciting results when they followed hospital workers who voluntarily participated in a 12-week workplace fitness program.

At the end of the program, obese and overweight participants lost about 3 percent of their beginning body weight. Almost all participants saw improvements in levels of physical activity, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and reduced waist circumference at the end of the 12 weeks and one year later.

Still, many employers wonder: if they build it, will they come? Will employees really participate if a company invests significant time, money and other resources on wellness? Health2 Resources conducted an online survey to find out. It found 83 percent of the employers who invested in wellness programs and measured their results found a dollar-for-dollar return on the investment.

Companies that are successful promote their programs and embed them into their corporate culture from the C-suite and throughout the organization. Employees might see the CEO walking the stairs instead of using the elevator. The company cafeteria might use choice architecture to make it easier to select healthful food options.

And, successful companies reward employees for their effort. Employees might receive a discount on their insurance premiums for taking a health screening or earn “prize points” in the form of gift certificates to a popular store.

On the other hand, those who experience the least amount of success will tout a program once and then ignore it. For example, I know of too many organizations that heavily promote their wellness programs once a year, during open enrollment, when it is time for employees to take their annual health risk assessments. Once the assessment is completed, there is not another word about wellness for the rest of the year.

This fall, as you consider the important messages you are creating to discuss health care reform changes, don’t forget to plug your wellness resources. Better yet, don’t let your communication about your benefit programs end in December. Develop a calendar so that at least once a month you leverage your communication vehicles – be it the company newsletter or intranet – to encourage your employees to live healthier and take advantage of programs you offer, or that they can find in the community.

Remember, higher health care costs are driving health care reform. A healthier workforce is more productive and less expensive.

Michelle Hicks is a communications consultant with Buck Consultants. Contact her at michelle.hicks@buckconsultants.com.

About Michelle Hicks


  1. What gorgeous projects you created. Especially love the Enya with the punchinella touch.

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