Workplace wellness programs reduce medical costs, absenteeism and health-related productivity losses, yet many employers find it difficult to measure the success of their programs.
Simply enrolling in a program or engaging in an arbitrary number of actions is not predictive of improved health outcomes, or disease prevention or reversal,” wrote the authors of a wellness program report from Noom, a company that creates mobile apps that provide intelligent nutrition and exercise coaching. “Therefore, programs should exclusively focus on truly meaningful behaviors and actions that are consistent with driving specific outcomes.”
The meaningful behaviors that wellness programs encourage are those involving specific health outcomes. “Attending educational sessions, adhering to a prescribed calorie budget, logging food, and achieving physical activity goals are all examples of meaningful actions that are highly predictive of improved health outcomes,” the Noom authors wrote. “By taking this approach, employers’ benefit is huge in terms of both driving outcomes and saving money.”
In recent decades, an epidemic of “lifestyle diseases” has developed in the United States. These unhealthy lifestyles — inactivity, poor nutrition, tobacco use and frequent alcohol consumption — are driving up the prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and chronic pulmonary conditions, leading to decreased quality of life, premature death and disability and increased healthcare costs.
As part of an effort to improve employee health, many employers have adopted health promotion and disease prevention strategies known as workplace wellness programs. These programs are designed either to prevent the onset of diseases or to diagnose and treat diseases at an early stage before complications occur.
Today, about half of U.S. employers offer wellness programs, a recent Rand Employer Survey found. Most employers (72 percent of those offering wellness programs) characterize their wellness programs as a combination of wellness screening activities to identify health risks and interventions to reduce risks and promote healthy lifestyles. These programs include onsite Weight Watchers group meetings, weight loss competitions, personalized phone support from health coaches, and smoking cessation activities through educational programs or telephonic counseling.
The Rand study found that participation in a wellness program over five years is associated with a trend toward lower healthcare costs and decreasing use of healthcare services, saving employers about $157 per employee.
“The programs that deliver the highest (return on investment) are those that allow the consumer to have the best personalized experience,” Laurie Gondek, vice president at Welltok Inc., told Employee Benefit News. This could mean providing rewards to healthy employees for biometric screenings, stress management programs and long-term engagement through team challenges.
“The well-being program can be working in tangible and intangible ways,” Gondek said. “Tangible being a direct dollar amount I can take to my CFO, and intangible meaning that the program can be used as a retention as well as an employee attraction tool as a way to unify employees to give greater job satisfaction.”
Employers have found the best wellness programs focus on changing underlying behaviors that predict health outcomes over time. Research shows reducing calorie intake and increasing physical activity, self-monitoring (specifically tracking food, activity, and weight), and utilizing a support system are critical to transformative weight loss and chronic condition prevention.
More employers are also turning to mobile health solutions because they best meet their employees’ needs. Such mobile solutions are effective because they offer the meaningful, real-time feedback that is necessary to drive long-term behavior change and improve health outcomes.
“Mobile technology also offers a unique opportunity to provide a personalized and scalable experience,” the Noom authors wrote. “For example, Noom’s mobile coaching platform offers a variety of structured programs that target pre-chronic and chronic conditions including the CDC’s diabetes prevention program, as well as proprietary diabetes and hypertension management programs.”
Noom’s mobile technology promotes meaningful engagement through an easy-to-use food database with over 3.7 million food-portion pairings. It also allows users to track their calorie intake and adhere to a personalized calorie budget.
“Our technology prescribes weekly step and activity goals to help users increase their activity gradually, and prompts users to weigh themselves weekly,” the Noom authors wrote. “Users are also offered support and guidance from a dedicated health coach and group of peers sharing in the same experience. We’ve combined this mobile technology and human coaching with proprietary, condition-specific programs to prevent and reverse the most costly and preventable chronic conditions.”