Towers Watson Survey Reveals Employers’ New Year’s Resolution: Employee Wellness

January 28, 2014

It’s a new year and employers are making some resolutions of their own to improve health and wellness — not for themselves, but for their employees.

New Year, New Goals

According to the 2013/2014 Staying@Work report from Towers Watson, nearly half (49%) of U.S. employers surveyed said health and productivity programs are essential to their overall organizational health strategy and 42% said they play at least a “moderate role.” In the survey, health and productivity was defined to include “physical, psychological and emotional aspects of health.”

Meanwhile, 94% of U.S. employers surveyed said that they plan to have “an articulated health and productivity strategy” in the next three years. According to Towers Watson, programs without a cohesive, articulated strategy run the risk of inadvertently offering program elements that are not coordinated with each other, have low return on investment or do not adequately engage employees. When implemented correctly, these programs have been tied to improved employee health AND company savings.

For example, the report noted that the Johnson & Johnson health and wellness program “Live for Life” led to lower rates of emergency room admissions and higher rates of doctor visits and prescription fills for its employees as compared to other large companies. The projected return on investment for the program going forward is $1.88 to $3.92 for every $1.00 spent.

The Engagement Disconnect

As is often the case with New Year’s resolutions, though, there is a disconnect between intention and execution. We wrote in this blog back in November about wellness apps and how, despite the numbers of apps available, consumers are not using them. This trend also holds true for employer-sponsored wellness programs.

Nearly 8 in 10 employers surveyed view lack of employee engagement as the biggest obstacle to changing behavior. While the percent of employee engagement varied depending on the type of wellness program, participation was under 50% for health-assessment appraisals and well below 20% for other programs such as weight management and tobacco-cessation programs.

As a means of encouraging engagement, 55% of respondents reported facilitating competitions between employee groups in 2013. Still, rewards-based systems that motivate a change in behavior with prizes or financial incentives are gradually being displaced by ones that establish an overall company culture related to wellness.

Employers reported being 11% less likely to employ financial rewards as their primary incentive over the next three years, while they were 6% more likely to make cultivating a “culture of health” their primary method.

A Broader Trend

All of these efforts to facilitate wellness through employee engagement dovetail with a trend that has been on display in recent weeks and months with the Affordable Care Act rollout: empowering the health care consumer.

Just as public exchanges enable individuals to take charge of their health care and assume a more active role in selecting coverage, the aim of wellness programs is similarly to empower employees to engage in wellness programs motivated by company culture and other internal motivating mechanisms, as opposed to incentive programs.

According to a recent article in Fast Company, over 30% of all New Year’s resolutions (gathered from Twitter data) had to do with health. In addition, of the 13 most popular New Years resolutions, over half have to do with wellness and overall health.

So, it’s not surprising that these trends are reflected in employer activities, especially as the link between employee health and productivity has been firmly established. This resolution is good both for the company’s bottom line and for the health of its employees — although it remains a challenge to fulfill.

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Source: Fast Company, “Visualizing The New Year’s Resolutions We’re All Trying Not To Break”

The 2013/2014 Staying@Work report compiled survey data gathered by Towers Watson in 2013 about organizations around the world, across 15 key market areas, on their “health and productivity” programs and their goals for improving employee wellness in the future. The survey findings were released early in January of 2014. To read the full report, click here.

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