Companies spend about $8 billon a year on wellness plans – but are they really worth it? Two experts, Jim Purcell, a leading U.S. consultant on wellness, and Bénédicte Lepère, Global SVP of HR at Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services, discuss the components of successful wellness programs and weigh out the benefits.
Why are wellness programs on the corporate agenda?
Jim Purcell: They first caught hold in the U.S. in the 1980s, when premiums for company health insurance became exorbitant – rising 18% in one year - and studies indicated that certain activities could reduce claims and therefore employer contributions. Those premiums have continued to rise, and firms now spend about $8 billion a year in the U.S. alone on wellness. Good programs improve productivity and morale, while reducing staff turnover, absenteeism and health costs. However, many programs fail, or are a waste of money.
Bénédicte Lepère: Yes, I agree with Jim. Although wellness programs have been a trendy topic over the past few years, there is a problem with many of the programs out there. Only 13% of U.S. employers have programs that are truly comprehensive, which means offering HRA healthcare reimbursements and biometric testing, while only 4% to 8% of employees actually participate in their wellness program.
Why have these traditional programs failed?
JP: Traditional programs that just urge employees to “swim, gym and stop smoking” don’t work, because they don’t last and therefore don’t make a dent in premiums either. Random acts of wellness like ‘Lose 10 pounds or kilos this month’ also don’t work for the same reason. And the problem with cash incentive/penalty schemes is that employees see them for what they are – cynical attempts to increase its profit margins, by lowering healthcare costs, rather than caring about employees. And they can humiliate people.
So what is the recipe for success?
JP: Two things: leadership and a well-designed plan, with the first being critical. A company needs to create a culture of wellness, as it does for safety, so that wellness is talked about every day and referenced in every major meeting or presentation. Only the CEO and the board can start this ball rolling: they need to literally walk the talk, join in the company wellness events and make it part of their lives. In short, wellness needs to be recognized as strategic – and among the top three strategies for an organization.
BL: Top executives now recognize that the health and wellbeing of employees has a real impact on business performance, and it’s something we put into practice with our own teams at Sodexo. Much of the expertise within the Group has been developed from experiences gained with our own people. For example, ‘FitMeUp’, a program we have developed to provide health coaching on nutrition, physical activity and sleep, draws on practical trials with Sodexo employees.
What is needed at the design level?
JP: A starting point is to involve employees, so they have a sense of ownership, and to create separate programs for different groups. Studies have shown that a small percentage of a company’s employees can account for up to half of the health costs due to chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. A specific program for them will do more good and have a bigger impact on healthcare costs. Health checks and biometrics can also identify people at risk of chronic diseases, so you can intercept those conditions before they develop.
BL: At Sodexo, we believe this kind of comprehensive approach is absolutely the way to go, and it’s reflected in the different programs we offer around the world. In the U.S., our Boundless program provides a single card for purchasing on-site meals and to access Sodexo’s merchant network – restaurants, supermarkets and home-delivery meals. It also includes exercise, with the Mindful Mile, and the Core4™ suite for adult weight management and diabetes. In Latin America, programs such as Vivir Bien in Chile and Viver Bem in Brazil provide help with nutrition, personal support and family relations, along with loyalty card schemes.
And what might a wellness plan include?
JP: Exercise, which is much more effective if it’s done as a group, so that people feel supported, not isolated. Healthy options in the staff cafeteria and healthy snacks during meetings are key, but educating people about healthy eating is equally important. Encouraging people to walk, rather than use escalators, and to share their goals – perhaps in a company chatroom – all help. Communication needs to be continuous – not only about what the program offers, but also on the progress being made by the company as a whole.
BL: There’s no doubt that the main focus has to be on nutrition, exercise and the individual’s broader lifestyle. But I think that helping people to be more ‘mindful’ in general is also an important part of the wellness equation and, again, it’s something we have introduced internally. We organized a series of mindfulness and meditation sessions at our Paris HQ and participants came out feeling a sense of wellbeing and a greater empathy with colleagues. It was a very valuable experience from an HR perspective, and it’s also informed our thinking about future wellness programs.
Can companies deliver programs on their own?
JP: Yes, although expert advice and support from companies like Sodexo has a role to play in the design and delivery of a program; this is about creating lifestyle change, not a 30-day wonder. The returns can be substantial, with the best employee wellness programs delivering healthcare savings alone of two to three times the program cost, and increasing employee engagement by up to 40%. But a culture of wellness is really about doing ‘the right thing’ by your employees, the people who make your business happen, and helping them to lead better lives. And everyone benefits from that.
BL: Jim’s point about better lives speaks to the core mission of Sodexo: to improve people’s Quality of Life. This starts with being a good employer ourselves – in the way we support and develop our own people and that investment has contributed to rising levels of employee engagement. The latter reached 68% in 2016 - an increase of 9 percentage points from 2014, according to our global annual surveys. This commitment to our own employees also ensures that the wellness offers we create are absolutely relevant to the HR challenges faced by other major organizations. According to a Harvard University study, over three years a wellness program can yield an ROI of 3.27:1 in healthcare cost reductions, and an ROI of 2.73:1 in absences. And it’s the degree of relevance that ultimately delivers the attractive KPIs that companies are looking for.