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Digging in: How are employers investing in health and wellness?

I’m approaching the end of my heavy season, which runs from October 31 through my birthday later this week. This is the period when my weight slowly inches up (literally) as I deviate from my relatively low-carb, Caveman-style diet. Leftover Halloween candy holds me over until the pies of Thanksgiving kick in. Celebrating my wife’s birthday in early December sets me up for Hanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s festivities. More cake on my father-in-law Mickey’s birthday in early January is just a warm up for the sugar extravaganza for my own. For the last several years, we have held an “Adult Ice Cream Social” on my birthday, highlighted by a table full of toppings and liqueurs. The consequences of these events are further compounded by the series of smaller events with our kids, clearing out the leftover candy, cookie dough, and caramel sauce.

Limiting my weight gain during this time is a challenge, but I work hard to keep it from getting out of control because the consequences can be so dire (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, among others). The good news is that so many diseases can be prevented or mitigated through good lifestyle choices. The bad news is that making those choices can be hard – modern life can make it harder to eat healthy, be active, and keep stress levels down.

The incidence of chronic disease has risen – this is not news – but it has piqued interest from other sources than the usual ones like friends, family, and our health care providers. Employers, for example, have invested in wellness and prevention programs to promote health and encourage employees’ healthy choices.

In a recent analysis, Employers still bullish on wellness programs, Deloitte found that employers use wellness programs to encourage health, retain and recruit employees, and reduce costs. Research has shown that unhealthy lifestyles can produce absenteeism and reduced performance at work (presenteeism). One study examining absenteeism and presenteeism among 50,000 workers at 10 employers showed that lost productivity costs are 2.3 times higher than medical and pharmacy costs. Subsequently, employer wellness programs have been on the rise.

Deloitte’s 2015 Survey of US Employers reveals that many are planning to either maintain (42 percent) or expand (34 percent) their current wellness programs in the next three-to-five years. The surveyed employers reported that wellness programs are a key part of employee recruitment and retention strategies; 88 percent of respondents reported that employees expect them to offer these programs. However, employers reported acknowledging that employees may view some components of these programs as negative, invasive, or another chore they have to fulfill. These findings point to the tension that sometimes exists around employer wellness programs.

Most surveyed employers are committed to their wellness programs, even if they are not seeing immediate return on investment (ROI) or even if they are not measuring ROI at all. Although almost all surveyed employers that offer incentives (96 percent) agree or somewhat agree that these programs help to control medical costs, fewer than half of surveyed employers (47 percent) are measuring ROI for these programs. Research demonstrates that individuals with healthier lifestyles tend to have fewer sick days and incur fewer medical costs, so employers may offer these programs in part to attract employees who value wellness and are interested in wellness-related benefits. However, there is little hard evidence to show whether the investment in wellness programs improves employee health or productivity, especially in the long-term.

Consumers are sometimes skeptical or have negative views about employer wellness program penalties. However, findings from Deloitte’s 2015 Survey of US Health Care Consumers show that almost all surveyed consumers (91 percent) view the programs as a perk and see them as a tool help improve their health. One way employers may get higher levels of participation and engagement in wellness programs is to demonstrate an overall investment in health and wellness by making it part of the culture and to structure programs so that they are not just an additional chore for employees.

One of the surprising takeaways from these studies is that people seem just as likely to participate in employer wellness programs whether they are voluntary or mandatory to receive full health benefits. This demonstrates that ultimately, people recognize the mutual interests: Employers and employees want to be healthier, reduce costs, and thrive in a culture of wellness.

I’m doing my best to blunt the impact of my heavy season. I exercise whenever I can, and like 37 percent of fitness band owners who monitor their fitness level daily, I track my workouts with Strava and my Fitbit, spurred on by the kudos and cheers I get from my friends. I also weigh myself daily to be sure I have not hit some astronomical number that would force me to cancel my birthday party. So far, I have managed to keep my BMI in the 23’s, which puts me toward the upper range of normal. That’s just enough room for me to justify loading up a grocery cart with bags of candy, filling a crock pot with fudge sauce, and celebrating with my friends. A few days later, I will rededicate myself to health and fitness—at least until Valentine’s Day rolls around. In the meantime, if my colleagues want to challenge me to take the stairs or if my employer wants to subsidize the cost of my gym membership, I’m all for it.

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Author bio

As director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, Dr. Greenspun serves health care, life sciences, and government clients on key innovation and clinical transformation issues. He has been named one of the “50 Most Influential Physician Executives in Healthcare” by Modern Healthcare, co-authored the book “Reengineering Healthcare,” and has served on advisory boards for the World Economic Forum, WellPoint, HIMSS, Georgetown University. Prior to joining Deloitte, he served as the Chief Medical Officer for Dell.