By Samuel H. Fleet

Employers want to do the right thing when it comes to health benefits for their employees, not only because it is humane, but also because it makes good business sense to take care of their most important assets. As health benefits have become increasingly costly, employers have struggled to find the key to meeting healthcare needs without breaking the bank. Many have pinned their hopes on wellness initiatives, the most popular offerings including newsletters and websites, weight-loss programs and smoking cessation programs.

Why baby steps are not enough

The earliest wellness initiatives were grounded in the concept that once employees are confronted with information about unhealthy behaviors they will make improvements that will lead to better health.

Information alone, however, is rarely enough to make a difference. Employers are beginning to face the hard truth that giving employees access to wellness support has done little to change the overall health of their workforces. To reach that goal, they have to move beyond providing information to a much more effective level of wellness support: Employee health risk management.

Tying consequences to health risk management

Employee Health Risk Management is an approach that allows employers to actively manage the health risks of their employees. Among the tools are health risk assessments and biometric health screenings to help identify risks that are driving healthcare expenses.

When made mandatory for employees, these tools can be coupled with consequences. Instead of appealing to reason (“if you exercise, you will be healthier”), these advanced wellness initiatives provide both carrots and sticks to link an employee’s actions and outcomes to consequences. For example, people who continue to smoke even after having access to cessation support pay higher premiums for their health care. Or people who join a gym and use it three times a week pay lower premiums. Or a person who agrees to regular cholesterol and blood pressure screening earns an annual bonus. Ultimately the goal is to implement value-based plan designs tailor-made for employee populations.

Finding the right partner

When plans are well-designed, the requirements are both attainable and accompanied by support to help employees succeed. For example, a well-designed plan does not ask an employee to reduce Body Mass Index from 40 to 25 in one year.  A 10% or 15% reduction goal, supported by free access to plans like Weight Watchers, and supported with rewards and recognition may inspire the behavioral changes that will lead to a lower BMI with little further encouragement.

Wellness initiatives have always had the right idea: a healthy workforce costs less when it comes to health care benefits. But until recently, most have stopped short of the hard work it takes to get people to change their habits and lifestyles. In the era of health care reform, smart employers are stepping up their wellness efforts to make them more effective, and brokers are leading the way with cost-effective solutions. Now is the time to move beyond baby steps and actively manage the health and well-being of employees and their dependents.