On its surface, employee wellness seems like an easy sell and even easier to implement. Who doesn’t want healthier, more productive employees? What employees wouldn’t want to be healthier? But the reality belies easy answers.
At the 2015 HR Technology Conference, a panel of wellness leaders hosted by Ray Wang of Constellation Research spoke of the challenges of implementing employee wellness programs, their next steps, and their vision of the future of employee wellness.
Employee Total Health
The term employee wellness evokes deskbound employees getting up and tracking their steps, or presenting healthier options in the break-room vending machine, but innovative total health programs go beyond that. According to Kyu Rhee, IBM’s chief health officer, total health means ensuring and promoting a culture of health where it’s the easiest choice. Kent Bradley of Safeway Health added that it’s nothing less than the total experience of the employee during their time with the organization. More than physical health, it’s about the vibrancy and growth of individuals within your organization.
Employee Wellness and Cost Savings
At the corporate level, the goal of employee wellness is often to maintain a healthier, more productive and satisfied workforce—while reducing costs. Improving employee health alone may reduce a company’s health care costs, but there are also the costs of the program itself to consider. How can you convince the C-level that it’s worth investing in an innovative corporate wellness program?
Kyu Rhee and Kevin Potts, COO, Union Pacific Railroad Employee Health System, point to a data-driven approach. In his experience, Rhee claimed only 10 percent of health outcomes are related to healthcare. 40 percent is due to behavior, 30 percent depends on social and environmental status, and 20 percent is genomics. IBM is gathering data through diverse sources such as disability stats, wearables, and performance metrics to gain predictive insights that may help prevent physical and mental issues before they require expensive treatment.
Potts has used employee data to learn that emergency room usage among the railroad workers at Union Pacific is 300 percent above average. He’s leveraged that information to start putting the right tools in the hands of workers so they can find a more appropriate, and less expensive, health care provider than the ER to meet everyone’s needs.
Overcoming Employee Suspicion
As 95 percent of Union Pacific employees are required to carry a smartphone as part of their jobs, Potts’ group has begun using the company network to push important health information to employees along with more traditional mailers. But it’s not always easy to convince employees that wellness information is truly in their best interests. At Union Pacific, many union workers are suspicious of management. They worry the health data collected will jeopardize their jobs. So, it’s important that the wellness information being provided is helpful rather than punitive.
Over the years that Potts has worked union leaders, wellness has evolved from a one-way conversation to the point where younger union employees are beginning to take heed and take care of their health. Potts expects that within five years wellness ideas will begin coming from their employees themselves.
Bradley at Safeway Health also works closely with safety partners on congratulating employees rather than punishing them. He recommends taking into account the wants and needs of employees and leveraging them to help your company reach its wellness goals.
A rising awareness of how personal decisions can affect the cost of healthcare is beginning to drive changes in health choices. Employees are already leveraging technology on their own. Companies can support that to enable data-driven wellness.
As Rhee said, “You’re only as strong as your team at work and at home.” He feels that the best time to learn is often in informal settings rather than meetings, and recommends that you let go of those things you can’t influence. To drive change, you must have courage and be willing to go all-in if it fits with the integrity of your business.
What’s Next in Total Health
The panelists concluded their presentation by discussing their next steps in the continuing innovation of their wellness programs . At IBM, Rhee is working with partners to build on their Watson platform, incorporating augmented intelligence into the wellness program in order to augment predictive analysis. Bradley at Safeway Health is also focused on improving the ability to source data and integrate it between health professionals, the company, and patient in order to personalize wellness and make it more meaningful to individual employees. Potts’ has a slightly different goal for Union Pacific: to get the right tools in people’s hands so they can get what they want when they need it—empowering them to make better decisions about their health.