Corporate wellness about more than saving money

Much like the anti-smoking campaign that swept the nation more than 20 years ago, the wellness movement is one of the newest buzzwords to gain ground in American society. In the corporate world, where it started as a way to save money on health insurance plans and reduce employee absenteeism, the focus has shifted in a new direction.

According to Veronica Witt Martin ’84, who serves as vice president of operations for LifeSynch, the wellness arm of the medical giant Humana, the emphasis has moved toward encouraging people to live healthier lives so they have better health outcomes.

“Health care and wellness are (currently) very much in the forefront of employers’ minds,” she said. “There’s a lot of money that’s spent in (this) area, and so the pendulum is swinging somewhat to say, ‘we shouldn’t just be providing health care, we should encourage good health and wellness in order to help people live healthier lives and have better health outcomes.”

Drawing from more than 25 years of experience in the health insurance industry, the Hanover trustee oversees multiple units for LifeSynch that provide backroom support, such as claims, customer service, benefits and eligibility. Martin also looks at ways to help improve the organization’s infrastructure, with a focus on technology improvements and increasing efficiency.

She said healthcare is often the third largest expense any employer has, after payroll and the cost of any goods they provide, and should be managed as such.

“I’ve always found it fascinating that employers were willing to spend enormous amounts of time, all year long, managing those first two buckets of expenditure, but were typically only willing to deal with the management of their employee benefit program for a short amount of time once a year because it wasn’t central to what they did as a business,” she said.

Rising health costs have forced employers to look at this area more stringently. But one of the challenges they face is determining an acceptable return on any investments they make, something the industry has yet to do on a global scale.

Wellness programs can be as simple as offering educational content or focusing on a single area, e.g., smoking; large employers might have an on-site clinic. The area is so encompassing, she said, that it needs to fit the individual organization.

Regardless of its scale, however, there needs to be both top-down and bottom up support within an organization adopting the program for it to be successful.

“The leadership of the company has to buy in to the wellness program (as do) the front row associates,” said Martin. “They both have to work toward that objective. If it’s just one side or the other it will not work.”

In addition to the fear of investing in a population that may be transient, an employer can have difficulty in determining the root cause of an issue. For example, a company may see that it has a high percentage of employees who are obese and want to offer a program to combat it. However, the reality may be that what’s driving some of the obesity is stress.

Since the most common issues are often interrelated, e.g., smoking, stress, weight loss, Martin said  her company might need to counsel a member on one area in order to achieve success in another.

Costs for providing wellness programs to employees are as varied as the programs themselves. Biometric testing — gauging blood pressure, Body Mass Index and cholesterol levels, etc. might be $50 per employee; an onsite clinic can run in the thousands.

How long before an employer sees a return depends on the level of engagement and the type of program offered, but ultimately, it’s only one part of the solution.

“It’s acknowledging that we all have skin in the game,” she said.  “It really just requires a willingness to be a part of the wellness movement.  A willingness to acknowledge that each individual, with some degree of exception, is fully in charge of their own health and has the ability to change it for the better, if they want to do so.”