Melanie Ransom, PHR, VP/human resources at $134 million/14,000-member O Bee Credit Union with 52 full-time equivalents in Tumwater, Wash., joined the credit union in 2004 and started a wellness program in 2005. “I just felt like we needed something because we’re such sedentary workers,” she says.
“I talked to our CEO and said, ‘I’m not really sure what I’m doing here, but it sure seems like we have a profound opportunity to raise awareness about healthful eating and exercise in the eight hours every day that we have people here.” He asked how much money she needed and she estimated $50. “He laughed,” she admits. “It was all part of my not knowing what I was doing, but he said ‘sure, you can have $50, but let me know if you need more.’”
Fortunately, Ransom was able to make that $50 go a long way by taking advantage of resources available locally through state, county and local governments, other agencies and the Chamber of Commerce. “In 2006 the Chamber got federal grant money from the Health Steps Program that came to about $10,000 to provide a focus for workplaces on workplace wellness,” she says. The credit union got $1,000 from that grant for its program. And, since that time, Ransom has become a champion for wellness in the community and among other credit unions in the area.
“It’s a topic I’m very passionate about,” she says.
There is no question that health and wellness are top-of-mind for many people today, and that includes employers. MetLife’s 8th Annual Employee Benefits Trends Study shows that 37 percent of employers now offer a wellness program, up from 27 percent in 2005. Among larger employers—those with 500 or more employees—61 percent now offer a wellness program, up from 46 percent in 2005.
More employers may begin offering wellness programs thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed earlier this year. On Oct. 1, a federal grant program for small employers providing wellness programs will take effect. To be eligible, the employer must have fewer than 100 employees who work at least 25 hours or more per week and not have any form of wellness program in place as of March 23, 2010.
Stephanie Pronk is a believer in employer-sponsored wellness programs. Pronk is the clinical, health improvement and measurement lead in Hewitt’s Health Management Consulting practice. “When you have 67 percent of the population that’s overweight or obese and smoking rates maintaining at around 21 percent nationally, and not going down, plus increases in hypertension and high cholesterol—all of those things start to point to the need to really focus on providing opportunities for people to take action and change their behaviors, whether eating behaviors or physical activities,” says Pronk.
The trouble with wellness programs is that, while many defend them staunchly and most believe at some gut level that they are worthwhile, it can be difficult to define and measure actual, bottom-line-driven benefits. For credit unions, often faced with limited resources both in terms of staff time and dollars to spend, the ability to justify the creation and implementation of wellness programs must extend beyond simply being “nice to do.”
While the numbers can often be hard to get at, especially for small organizations that don’t have access to quantitative claims data, general evidence and scientific support suggests value in encouraging employee wellness. And, in fact, the support for these programs from those who have managed or participated in them is overwhelming.
“The value of workplace wellness is supported by significant research,” says Dr. Rob Loeppke, M.D., with U.S. Preventive Medicine, Jacksonville, Fla., who has more than 20 years of clinical and executive experience in the preventive medicine, corporate health and personal health management fields.
“Even a legion of horses cannot hold back an idea whose time has come, and prevention is an idea whose time has finally come,” says Loeppke. “The converging trends of economic and scientific rivers in our industry have brought forth an unparalleled opportunity to leverage the power of prevention in improving health and productivity.”
In fact, he notes, a recent Harvard University study found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent.
Pronk is also a believer. “The benefits far outweigh the challenges that come with these programs,” she says, “both in terms of health improvements for the individual and productivity and performance for the workplace, as well as the health care cost issue that we have in this country.”
Still, not all are convinced and there are others who feel these programs are a waste of time.