You are here

Human Resources

Wellness Program Checkup

Determining the return-on-investment for programs meant to keep employees fit and healthy
University Business, May 2008

SINCE WELLNESS PROGRAMS were introduced to the workplace more than 30 years ago, colleges and universities have offered employees a variety of free health perks and programs ranging from weight loss coaches and gym memberships to self-help classes.

Yet even the most comprehensive wellness program isn't worthwhile if only a handful of employees participate or, even worse, if it has minimal impact on employee absenteeism, job productivity, and employer health claims.

Studies show how effective money can be at helping people change bad habits or undesired behaviors.

HR executives at higher ed institutions are scrutinizing their wellness programs, asking themselves such questions as: How can we boost participation rates? What is our return-on-investment (ROI)? What types of programs produce the most ROI?

Unfortunately, not many know the answers. But that's slowly changing. At more IHEs, HR leaders are finding creative ways to drive participation to record numbers, then examining their effects on specific areas such as employee attendance and health care claims. Their hope is to identify and expand programs that offer high ROI, eliminate those that don't, and fill in the gaps to help employees reach health goals.

Some institutions build participation by offering experiential programs. Miami University (Ohio) invites its 3,600 employees to participate in Hawk Walk, a two-month program in which employees walk to a different location each week, explains Jay Kimiecik, director of employee health and well-being at the school.

So far, hundreds of employees have participated. The walks lead to a variety of fun places such as an equestrian center where participants are educated about horses, or a community facility where they learn hiphop or line dancing. The university plans to offer health screenings, health coaching, and other traditional wellness activities, but Kimiecik says Hawk Walk is becoming its signature wellness program.

HR is dividing employees into three different groups-high, medium, and low users of the school's wellness program-to compare participation rates against health care claims for each group, adds Carol Hauser, Miami's senior director of HR.

That's when the truth about these programs will be revealed. Are they effective? If so, HR may start offering financial incentives to increase participation. "We've read that you can get as much as a four-to-one dollar return," Hauser says.

In an effort to reduce soaring health care claims, many schools are paying employees to get into shape. Recent studies show how effective money can be at helping people change bad habits or undesired behaviors.

Last year, for example, researchers at RTI International and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied how financial incentives encouraged people to lose weight. Researchers monitored more than 200 university and community college employees in North Carolina for more than three months, discovering that the larger the financial incentive, the greater the short-term weight loss. Participants who received $14 per percentage point of weight loss were five-and-a-half times more likely than those who didn't receive any money to lose five percent of their body weight, according to RTI.

A previous RTI study found that obesity costs employers between $400 to $2,000 per obese employee. So financial incentives that help workers develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle may be a school's best defense against rising health care costs.

But financial incentives come in different shapes and sizes. Like their counterparts in the corporate world, IHEs are doing everything from lowering health care premiums and eliminating copays to distributing quarterly checks to employees for participating in wellness or prevention activities. Here's what a few schools are doing:

Purdue University (Ind.): Each of Purdue's 12,500 employees can receive an additional $150 per year by completing an annual health assessment, says Mindy Paulet, the school's administrative director of work-life programs. Those who also meet five out of eight established criteria-like seeing a weight loss coach or attending a stress management workshop-earn an additional $250 at the end of the year. Based on health claims, the school also pays for some prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines and reduces copays for mental health visits. "It's about health and productivity management," says Paulet. "We've made changes toward more behavior-focused programs, rather than participation. If someone just participates, it doesn't mean they've changed any behaviors."

University of Kentucky: The school's 19,000 retirees, employees, and spouses can each earn between $10 and $15 each month for participating in three wellness activities through the school's Health Track rewards program, explains Jody Ensman, program manager, health and wellness programs at the university. They can get $5 for logging on (even once) to their personal health page, which features health articles and websites and a health activity tracker to help them monitor exercise and eating habits. They earn another $5 every time they complete a quarterly or semi-annual online assessment, and $5 more for earning at least 500 wellness credits each month for engaging in activities ranging from jogging and drinking water to wearing a seat belt. Employees are sent a separate check each quarter.

"Education awareness and prevention is where we need to start," says Ensman. "Combined with other disease management programs, I think we can be extremely effective not only in improving people's lives but also in assisting universities to control health care costs."

Abilene Christian University (Texas): The 800 employees of this school earn points for participating in dozens of different activities for the mind, body, and spirit, says Kerri Hart, assistant professor of exercise, science, and health and co-chair of the school's Abundant Life wellness program. For example, students may earn 10 points for saying a prayer for another student or 2,000 points for completing a health screening. Points are traded in for prizes featured on the school's online gift store. The gift with the highest monetary value is a $200 MasterCard.

Not every employee is turned on by the same program or reward. To attract more people, consider offering a variety of wellness opportunities.

"The hot button issue we've been working on with universities is different ways they can encourage people to participate in health and wellness programs that we launch," says Douglas Nagel Jr., a wellness consultant at Meritain Health, a third-party health care administrator based in Buffalo, N.Y. ( "You need to have a lot of different avenues for people to achieve their wellness goals. The more variety that universities have in place, the better the participation will be."

'You need to have a lot of different avenues for people to achieve their wellness goals.' -Douglas Nagel Jr., wellness consultant

One of Nagel's favorites is health reimbursement accounts (HRAs), which are similar to health savings accounts (HSAs). HRAs are employer-funded and stay with the employer when employment ends. Each employee gets an HRA, and the employer deposits money into the account based upon an employee's participation in various wellness programs. Meritan Health monitors how the money is spent. Account funds can be used for a wide range of health-related items, such as copays for doctor visits and over-the-counter medicine.

Colleges with smaller budgets can conduct raffles for participating employees. Nagel points to several colleges that have done this, giving away health-related prizes such as gift certificates to a sporting good store or even an iPod employees can use while exercising.

Another idea to consider: The University of Michigan invites its 36,000 employees to sessions where all of the school's chefs host free demonstration classes on how to prepare tasty and healthy food, says LaVaughn Palma-Davis, senior director of university health and well-being initiatives. This year, eight classes have been scheduled and are already filled.

The school also encourages each of its departments to suggest ergonomic improvements. Department managers submit an application explaining their idea, which is then reviewed by a university committee. If approved, their department pays for half of the implementation cost while the school's matching fund pays the remainder-up to $15,000.

The school sometimes waives employee copays for recommended exams or treatments, such as eye exams for diabetics. Employees can also join a team-or go solo-as part of the school's Active You program, which promotes physical activity in daily living. For eight weeks, Palma-Davis says, teams and individuals compete against each other to achieve weekly goals, such as completing 100 minutes of physical activity a week. The school identifies roughly 30 different activities that all employees- even those with disabilities-can participate in. Prizes range from personal trainers and iPods to the individual grandprize-a $500 travel voucher. So far this year, 10,000 employees have competed.

But if that doesn't draw more employees, maybe this will: At the beginning of the competition, participants can also donate money, which goes into a central pot, to a specific charity. If their team wins, the entire pot of money is given to the charity chosen by that team. This year, the school collected more than $20,000 in donations.

Successful wellness programs all share several things in common. They impact a school's bottom line, remove barriers for employees who want to participate, and offer a wide variety of programs that appeal to everyone on campus. None of their activities or rewards is stagnant, and each reflects the changing or growing needs of its employee base. Can you say the same about your school?

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.