According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 75 percent of an employer’s healthcare costs and productivity losses can be attributed to employees’ lifestyles. This has led to a trend in corporate America to focus on health and wellness. This represents a shift to the prevention of injuries, illnesses and diseases, rather than a more traditional approach where the focus is on treatment or reversing the effect of a disease, illness or injury. This concept is making its way into the construction industry.

Wellness programs have been found to yield an incredible return on the employer’s investment. A Pittsburgh-based health insurer’s wellness plan returned $1.65 for every dollar that was spent. Accomplishments such as this occur by targeting and eliminating common risk factors that lead to increased health problems and costs. These risk factors include the following:

• Lack of Exercise—Adults who exercise one to two times a week had $221 less in annual healthcare costs than those who never exercised. The savings was $285 annually for those who exercised three or more times a week.

• Obesity—Obese individuals (those with high body mass indices) have twice as many absentee days, costing $863 in lost work and productivity per person annually.

• Stress—Individuals reporting high stress levels averaged approximately 7.5 more medical claims and $1,137 more in total health costs annually than those who control their stress level.

• Smoking—The medical costs of smokers are $1,429 more per year than nonsmokers, and smokers are absent from work between 33 and 50 percent more often.

These financial benefits alone may not be enough to convince some that the workplace should be the origin of an employee’s personal wellness. However, consider that most adults spend more of their day at work than any other single location. The culture and environment of the work site are powerful influences on an employee’s decision to make healthier lifestyle choices. By participating in a wellness program at work, an employee will experience reduced weight, improved physical fitness and stamina. These go hand-in-hand with lower stress levels and an increased sense of well-being, self-image and self-esteem. This improvement in the work force leads to further benefits for the employer. Healthier, happier employees lead to improved employee relations and morale as well as increased productivity.

The first step in getting a wellness program together is to convene a planning committee. An employee-driven committee encourages both management and employee buy-in to the program, ensuring its success. A representative committee will design a program that is responsive to the needs of all potential participants. It should include interested individuals plus someone to represent the management side of the company. This manager will play a key role in implementing and evaluating the program. He or she must have control of employee schedules and a positive influence on employees. Depending on company size, a committee may not be necessary or feasible. However, to help ensure the success of the program, someone to champion the program’s activities will be needed.

Before too much else can happen, the planning committee must answer the following questions that will assist them in the planning process:

• Are managers willing to participate and encourage others to do so?

• What do they see as the benefits of the program for the employees and the company?

• What kinds of activities will management allow?

• What is the level of employee interest in various types of health promotion activities?

• What are the most convenient times and places to schedule activities?

• What are some suggested changes in the company to promote a more healthful work environment?

Of these questions, the most crucial to the success of a wellness program is that of employee interest. Many types of assessments can be used to collect such information. A Worksite Wellness Individual Interest Survey, which can be found online, is one such assessment. A simple survey of 10 to 12 questions can provide a wealth of information, such as how employees would prefer to receive program information and updates, the health components about which they would be most interested (e.g., nutrition, physical activity, smoking cessation) and what types of groups the employees are most interested in joining, such as walking, weight-loss, martial arts or nutrition. Another helpful assessment is the Organizational Health Survey, designed to determine the extent to which opportunities exist at the workplace to pursue and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Once the employee interest level and work site opportunities for the program have been ascertained, a Health Risk Assessment (HRA) needs to be completed. It will help identify a company’s specific health and wellness problems and establish targets for improvements. This assessment will accurately measure employees’ risk levels and proactively place individuals in the appropriate interventions.

To help the committee focus on what should be included in the program, it is helpful to develop specific goals and objectives that the health and wellness program is to accomplish. Goals should be broad, long-term accomplishments that are expected from the program. Each goal will have one or more clear, time-limited objectives to ensure that it will be successfully achieved. The following are some possible objectives:

• Reduce the number of employees who smoke from 30 to 25 percent by the end of the next fiscal year.

• Reduce the overall use of sick leave by at least 2 percent from the previous year and after the first full year of the program’s operation.

• Improve employee satisfaction with the company, as measured by employee satisfaction surveys conducted before and after the first full year of program operation. Increase the average score by at least 10 percent.

From the objectives that are developed, the committee will compile the appropriate action steps necessary to accomplish the goal. Action steps are statements of expected short-term accomplishments that relate to one or more of the program goals. These steps should be written clearly to allow program planners to readily determine if they have been met. An example would be to work with the company’s health plan to add smoking cessation benefits at plan-renewal time.

At this point in the planning, the committee will need to develop a realistic timeline to get the program started and evaluate its success.

In addition, a budget must be developed to allow the planning committee to better compare program costs and outcomes. It has been shown that programs with more moderate costs are more likely to demonstrate significant cost savings. When developing the budget, it can be useful to make the calculations according to a per-employee or per-participant cost. Enacting an employee cost-share for specific activities is one way to help reduce the cost of the program to the company.

Funding for an incentive program should be included in the budget. Build motivation by offering participants rewards for meeting action steps in accomplishing a health program goal. Incentives can range from recognition in the employee newsletter to a stress ball or water bottle that is only available to participants. Another common incentive for important program milestones is discounted health premiums. It is a way to give positive reinforcement for those who are trying to meet fitness and wellness goals.

The Internet offers a wealth of materials that can be used to educate participants and supplement a wellness program. Voluntary health organizations (American Cancer Society), local public health departments and state or national health agencies also can be great resources for ways to enrich a company’s health and wellness program.

The next step is to promote the program among the employees. Promotion is twofold. It needs to increase awareness of the program’s existence and to motivate employees to take part. Planning the program can be seen as a powerful marketing tool. Having many employees involved in the planning helps get the word out. Completing a thorough needs assessment helps identify health issues and program activities. This often encourages employees already interested in joining these activities to sign up for them. The best marketing tools are individuals that have had success in and are pleased with the program. They tend to get the word out to other employees.

At this point, the planning is done, and the program is ready to go. A good rule of thumb is to begin the program slowly and start with those activities most likely to have the greatest interest level and are, therefore, most likely to succeed.

The process and timelines for evaluating the program’s success should be determined during the planning phase. It should be ongoing and based on the goals and set objectives. The evaluation should include how well the program is working and if the program is achieving the expected results (i.e., the goals and objectives). These periodic reviews can lead to modifications that ensure the program is following a course that will lead to success.

It should be emphasized that an employee health and wellness program must be tailored to each company using it. All organizations can benefit from an increased level of healthful activities and an awareness of healthier habits. It may be that starting small, a program with fewer goals, and building on the program’s success will increase the viability and long-term usefullness of the company’s wellness and health program.

KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.