For years, Barb Kildow, 55, wanted to lose 10 to 15 pounds. But she never got motivated to eat healthier or exercise regularly even though her employer has an on-site fitness center.
About a year ago, Kildow, assistant vice president of communications at Chicago-based Equity Residential, began participating in the company's employee wellness program run by the Vitality Group. She received a health risk assessment survey asking her about smoking, alcohol consumption, and eating and sleep habits. Based on her answers, she received recommendations to help her meet her health goals. She upped her workouts in the company gym from “maybe once or twice a week” to four or five times a week during her lunch break.
She credits the program's assistance on nutrition and stress management and the on-site gym with helping her lose 27 pounds and drop her body mass index from 24 to 21. A major motivating factor was the $500 annual discount on her health insurance premium for completing the survey, with the promise of additional reductions for meeting specific fitness goals. “That (discount) certainly is a driver for me,” Kildow said.
Equity Residential is one of a growing number of U.S. employers that have implemented wellness programs with a goal of improving employee health and productivity and reducing healthcare costs. While such programs have been used by most large companies over the past decade, they have spread to smaller firms, driven by employers' desire to lower the cost of their health plans and avoid the 40% excise tax starting in 2018 on high-cost plans under the healthcare reform law. Companies also have been persuaded to launch wellness programs by marketing from the burgeoning industry of wellness providers.
But experts question these programs' effectiveness in improving health and reducing costs, and some employers are rethinking their approach. A RAND Corp. study last year found that such programs are only cost-effective when they focus on helping employees manage chronic health conditions and that efforts focusing on health habits among otherwise healthy people produce little return on investment in the short term.
Some employers are working on more effective ways to engage employees in increasing physical activity, making healthy food choices and stopping smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. A number of firms also have made environmental changes in the workplace, such as adding walking paths, increasing nutritious food choices in cafeterias and adding on-site fitness centers. “Employers have moved from just a programmatic focus to actually creating a view of health as a strategic value to the organization,” said Shelly Wolff, a leader of the health and group benefits unit at Towers Watson.