Prevent to Profit


Employers make a case for health care wellness and prevention programs for better morale and a more robust bottom line

In an age of increased awareness about the importance of key health screenings, healthy lifestyle choices and the ultimate impact on a company’s bottom line, more businesses have taken a proactive approach to health and wellness strategies.

Among those strategies is a focus on prevention and incentives. Gregg Laiben, M.D., medical director and department vice president at Blue KC, sat down with KC Business to explain the value of such strategies and how it can make a difference for both the employer and employee.

KCB: Why the focus on prevention and risk factors?

GL: Many individuals engage in risky behaviors without even thinking about the negative implications—things like drinking, smoking, watching too much TV, stress and anger. All of these behaviors can increase risks for developing diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions that negatively affect our quality of life, increase health care costs and decrease overall productivity. In addition, it’s much better to prevent a disease than to treat it after it starts. Although many of these diseases are treatable, they aren’t curable, so it’s important to eradicate risky behaviors at the forefront.

KCB: What does this mean for the employee?

GL: As an employee, it means great opportunities and tools are available to be as healthy as possible, so that the employee can spend more time with family and engage in the fun things in life. Because we know that wellness programs are important to employees, we see employers use wellness and prevention as recruitment and retention tools. For example, some employers offer fitness centers to make it easier for employees to exercise, which is not only a health benefit to the employee, it also saves the employee money by eliminating the extra cost of an outside gym membership. It’s a great win-win, meaning that healthy employees equal lower health care premiums for employers.

KCB: What does this mean for a supervisor/manager?

GL: Supervisors/managers are more likely to have employees that are healthier; healthier employees are more productive employees. When we feel good and are treating ourselves right, we have an easier time concentrating and are more productive. If a job requires physical activity, being fit and healthy makes it easier to do that job. So, from a manager’s perspective, having a healthier workforce means you’re likely to have more engaged employees and higher morale.

KCB: The use of financial incentives in workplace wellness or health management programs has gained momentum over the past several years. A 2009 survey by Buck Consultants reported that 56 percent of U.S. employers were using financial incentives in their wellness programs and another 26 percent plan to do so. Does Blue KC see an upward trend as well, and to what do you attribute that?

GL: Blue KC has been involved in wellness since 2005, and our clients have seen great results. Kansas City’s marketplace is unique compared to other parts of the country. Not only do clients ask us for wellness programs, but we also have employers that require participation. It is not unusual to see 80-90 percent participation rates in the Kansas City market, particularly with those employers that have created significant financial incentives around participation.

For example, some areas of the country consider success when participation rates are in the single digits. In Kansas City, just by offering a wellness program, we see employers reaching 30 percent without an incentive. In other regions of the country, you might see 5 percent participation without an incentive.

I attribute this to the sophistication of our employer and broker market who were very early adopters of wellness and have created a culture of wellness within their walls. They see both the direct and indirect returns on investment—the direct component being stabilization of health care costs and the indirect being a decrease in absenteeism and presenteeism. (Note: Absenteeism is when an employee does not work at all on a given day, whereas presenteeism is the situation when the individual is at work, but not functioning at their fullest potential.)

KCB: The passage of the Affordable Care Act increases the likelihood that employers will expand or introduce the use of incentives. Is this true, and why or why not?

GL: There is language in the Affordable Care Act that promotes the use of financial incentives and allows employers the ability to increase those incentives and disincentives in certain areas. For example, employers can institute a bigger differential in the cost of premium between smokers versus non-smokers.

KCB: Some say the most effective way to drive employee participation and engagement is to follow best practices for incentive design, including engaged leadership, healthy workplace culture, clear and simple incentive design that moves employees through the stages of behavior change, ongoing communications and strategic use of health assessment data.

GL: We have found that adhering to best practices can result in significant participation and engagement. We see it in terms of putting in place reasonable incentives to promote good behavior and disincentives to discourage bad behaviors. This approach, coupled with ingraining wellness into the corporate culture, goes a long way. Additionally, engaging leadership is key. We do see some successes with grassroots approaches, in which employees…

Read the rest of what Gregg Laiben, M.D., medical director and department vice president at Blue KC has to say about how health culture in business can mean big savings in the digital issue of KC Business