How Healthy Are Wellness Programs?

By Olson, Thomas | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 24, 2011 | Go to article overview
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How Healthy Are Wellness Programs?

Olson, Thomas, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Most companies with wellness programs dangle incentives -- often up to $100 in cash per worker -- to prod employees to join, according to health benefit consultants.

At Consol Energy Inc., an employee gets a "well being" day off with pay, for example. At Bayer Corp., it's a $50 gift card for general merchandise of the employee's choice.

Those companies hardly are alone in throwing money or perks at employees to induce them into wellness programs. A recent survey by Cowden Associates Inc. stated 69 percent of employers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio offer incentives to participate.

"Those that use financial incentives spend between $50 and $100 per person," said Vince Wolf, executive vice president of the Downtown compensation and benefits consultant.

Yet, although it's increasingly common for companies to adopt wellness programs, fewer than half of companies in Western Pennsylvania measure whether such programs work well.

A survey of 27 local employers by Buck Consultants LLC found only 46 percent of those with wellness programs measured their effectiveness. But 52 percent of them spend more than $500 a year per employee to participate.

"I've been surprised in the last couple of years that it doesn't appear a lot of employers are measuring the impact of their wellness programs," said Lorin Lacy, a principal in the Downtown firm's health and productivity practice.

For example, 61 percent of the organizations surveyed said they couldn't tell whether their wellness programs reduced employee absenteeism.

Wellness programs identify and address employees' health risks, and try to prevent illnesses. The programs generally entail health appraisals, including lab work, diet regimens and fitness routines.

Employer wellness programs, which began cropping up in the early 1990s, gained traction in the past several years. The percentage of American employers offering such programs grew from 49 percent in 2007 to 70 percent in 2010, according to Buck's survey of 620 employers.

The most common components of such programs, the Buck survey states, are:

Immunization/flu shots (93 percent of area employers / 90 percent of United States)

Gym/fitness club discounts (92 percent of area / 73 percent of nation)

Walking or weight loss competitions (81 percent of area / 68 percent of United States)

Web-based lifestyle programs (81 percent of area / 63 percent of nation)

Health risk appraisals (73 percent of area / 76 percent of States)

Rite-Aid Corp. parlayed the wellness trend into six "wellness" stores it opened in the past month in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including one in Dormont and one in Greensburg. They include health- and-fitness products not found in traditional Rite-Aid pharmacies, plus on-site "wellness ambassadors" who help customers choose products.

Buck's Lacy said 69 percent of Western Pennsylvania employers had wellness programs in 2010. His company did not have figures for prior years.

Consol Energy has held 25 health fairs in 25 locations, partnering with nearby hospitals.

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