Winning employers prove persistence is critical to wellness program impact on the bottom line
Story by Rick Berg
Employer-based wellness programs are difficult to start. And it can be even more difficult to build wellness program momentum over time.
In this 11th year of New North B2B magazine’s Corporate Wellness Awards, our three 2016 winners demonstrate that persistence pays off.
During the past five years, Cypress Benefit Administrators of Appleton has been able to trim its health-related expenses by more than $102,000 a year without increasing employee deductible or health plan contributions. Woodward Radio Group of Green Bay and Appleton has measurably improved the overall health of its employee owners during the past four years and now boasts an average health risk assessment score well above the national average. And 4imprint of Oshkosh encourages its employees to participate in the community which improves mental and emotional health.
B2B’s Corporate Wellness Award – sponsored by Network Health of Menasha – was designed to recognize the efforts of those employers in northeast Wisconsin who proactively and measurably improve the health of their workforce, driving down the number of high-cost group health insurance claims and ultimately having more control over health insurance premium fluctuation. In the long run, the initiative is about building a healthier workforce and building a healthier population, which leads to less lost-time productivity due to illness and recovery.
“The more we get people from high risk to moderate risk to low risk, the more we can stay away from those high claims that are killers when it comes to renewal time,” said Mark Geiger, a regional wellness supervisor with Network Health and one of the panelists involved in evaluating this year’s employer wellness program nominees.
“These high claims are never going to go away. They’re always going to happen,” said David Brand, an employee benefits specialist with Appleton-based Valley Insurance Associates and a veteran B2B Corporate Wellness Award panelist. “But if we can set the tone to keep them controlled a little bit more by having people take care of themselves better, it decreases the proclivity of those high claims.”
One of the goals of B2B’s Corporate Wellness Awards is to share new innovations and best practices in wellness programming implemented by neighboring employers so that other businesses across northeast Wisconsin might adopt such components into their own wellness programs. With that in mind, here’s a closer look at the wellness programs of this year’s three wellness award winning employers.
Cypress Benefit Administrators: Walking the Talk
For Tom Doney, president of Appleton-based Cypress Benefit Administrators, establishing wellness programs for the company’s 120-plus employees was “the right thing to do,” but it was also a matter of practicing what Cypress preaches.
“We felt it was important for us to walk the talk,” said Doney, whose company provides employee benefit administration to more than 350 clients across the United States. “We are in a unique position because we work with these companies and we see what their health care costs are. It’s the second most expensive item for most employers, after payroll, and so it has a huge impact on them.
“So we can help them understand that there are ways to reduce their costs through wellness programs and here’s how we have done it – to use our template as a means of getting to where you want to go from a wellness standpoint. Because we’re in the health care business we have access to information about the next generation of wellness programs that are available. It’s important that we be able to practice that internally and be able to speak to that to our clients.”
The benchmarks and results of the Cypress wellness program impressed the New North B2B wellness awards panelists.
Brand noted that the 80 percent employee participation in the Cypress health risk assessments and health coaching program was “outstanding.”
Geiger especially liked the incentives Cypress put in place to encourage participation in the wellness program, including the “Wellness Buck” incentive, which allows employees to earn points toward paid time off.
“I’m surprised more companies don’t use PTO or vacation time as an incentive,” Geiger said. “It’s a relatively low cost for the employer and has a lot of value for the employee.”
Among the highlight results of the Cypress wellness program:
- Employee medical plan costs have decreased on a per-employee basis over the last five years – a reduction of 13.1 percent from $553.83 per employee per month in 2011 to $481.66 per employee per month in 2015.
- Employee premiums, deductibles and out- of-pocket expenses have not been increased in four years.
- The company’s annual biometric screening program found significant improvement in several health segments. The number of employees testing in the excellent category increased overall by 10 percent, with marked improvements in blood pressure, body fat and glucose. The non- smoker population improved by 5 percent.
- Cypress received the 2013 Gold Workplace Award from the Wellness Council of America. Cypress achieved those results through a diverse blend of programs and incentives.
Its KrowdFit program encourages active participation in the wellness plan by making employees eligible for monetary rewards. Also, those enrolled in the Cypress self-funded medical plan receive a 50 percent reduction in their medical premiums when they actively participate in the program.
The Cypress Wellness Committee, made up of employees from all of the company’s offices, develops activities throughout the year to encourage participation and education about wellness. Some of the most effective have been lunch-and-learn sessions on wellness-related topics; Walking at Lunch and other fitness challenges, which award gift cards to participants; on-site massages; annual flu shots; and healthy foods days. Annual employee surveys also assess wellness needs and provide additional ideas for wellness initiatives.
Doney acknowledged the Cypress wellness template will not fit perfectly with other companies.
“Every client is different,” Doney said. “People sometimes ask what the wellness package looks like, but there really isn’t a package. Everyone starts from a different place. We never go into a client and say, ‘Here are the three things you need to do.’ We can say that there are two factors that are consistently needed for success. One is a complete and long-term management commitment to the wellness program, and the second is buy-in from employees, and that comes from communication, education and engagement.”
The other consistent factor is having biometric screening through a health risk assessment program, as well as incentives to encourage participation in the screening and follow-up coaching.
“You have to establish a baseline, so that’s the first step,” Doney said, “but other than that, it’s not formulaic – that’s for sure.”
Also, Doney added, employers and employees can have a reasonable expectation that improved health will result in bottom-line benefits, but he cautioned the financial results might sometimes be murky.
“As we’ve seen, our health care costs have gone down by 13 percent over the past five years, but generally it’s very difficult to put a specific number on wellness ROI,” Doney said. “That’s because you really can’t put a dollar figure on what you saved because of what didn’t happen.”
4imprint: A holistic approach to wellness
Oshkosh-based 4imprint received high marks from the wellness award panelists for the diversity of its wellness program.
“They’re not putting all their eggs in one basket,” Brand said. “They look at all aspects of wellness and do a lot of different things for their employees, including looking at financial and mental health.”
Geiger agreed. “They’re hitting on all the key components (of an ideal wellness program) and it shows,” he said. “They have better than 60 percent participation in their program, and when we see engagement that high, they are doing the right things.”
Mary Curtin, vice president of administration at 4imprint, said diversity was the company’s goal.
“We take a very holistic view of wellness,” Curtin said. “I don’t know that we started out that way, but it evolved. We looked at what other companies have done and found to be successful and tailored that to what we thought would be well received here. We also took suggestions from our associates about what they would like to see us do.”
Among the key areas identified was the value of having onsite health and medical services at 4imprint, which previously won B2B’s Corporate Wellness Award in 2007. The promotional product retailer contracts with Affinity Health System to bring health care practitioners on site at least monthly and sometimes more often. That includes nurses, nurse practitioners, dieticians, nutrition coaches, massage therapists and physical therapists, as well as implementing an employee assistance program. Visits with the health care professionals are free to employees, regardless of their insurance status. The health care practitioners also provide classes and lunch sessions on health topics such as back care, nutrition and ergonomics.
Curtin said the onsite health care options are intended to provide employees with “peace of mind – one less thing to worry about. There are so many things people are juggling both at work and outside of work. By having some of these services available onsite, it gives them more time outside of work to focus on other areas of their lives.”
Like all successful wellness programs, 4imprint’s initiative includes an annual HRA, with incentives for employees and their spouses to participate, with wellness reimbursements for employees and cash gift cards for their spouses. As a result, the HRA program had a 66 percent participation rate in 2016 – up from an already impressive 60 percent of its nearly 800 employees in 2015.
The company also encourages ongoing participation in the wellness program with other incentives. Employees earn wellness points for activity in physical health areas such as exercise, meeting with a dietician and physician visits, for example. It also incentivizes mental health (reading, training classes), financial health (writing a will, deciding on a Power of Attorney for medical needs, creating a budget), emotional and spiritual health (meditating, breathing exercises, cultivating healthy relationships) and community involvement through volunteering. Employees also earn points for participating in bi-monthly wellness challenges, as well as exercise classes.
Quarterly and annually, 4imprint employees who have earned a point-total target are entered into drawings for cash cards and paid time off.
The company’s wellness initiatives include healthy snack options in vending machines; subsidized healthy lunch choices, gluten-free, vegetarian and diabetic-friendly meal choices at company events; gym and YMCA membership discounts; Healthy Savings Cards that provide discounts on healthy products at Pick’n Save and Copps grocery stores; ergonomic workstations and ergonomic assessments; quiet rooms for nursing mothers and employees who are ill; classes on meditation, stress reduction, financial planning, planning for funerals and resolving conflicts; onsite blood drives and gifts for those who participate in the blood drive; and onsite flu and Tdap shots.
Brand and Geiger were especially impressed with 4imprint’s focus on community involvement as a component of wellness.
“They’re very progressive in that way,” Brand said, “because community involvement is an often overlooked area of mental and emotional health.”
“I just think they’re strong overall,” Geiger said.
Curtin said the company’s next major wellness outreach will be to family members.
“We already do a little of that with our HRAs, which are free to spouses as well as associates,” Curtin said, “but we plan to expand that to other areas of our program. We think that will be very important, because there are so many studies that have shown that getting the family involvement is the way to go, because you’re changing the home life as well as the work life.”
Beyond that, Curtin said, “we’re always looking to entertain new ideas. Most of what we are doing now has come from associates asking if we can do this or can we do that. And once people see that you have taken their ideas and put them into play, they’re going to be encouraged to continue to offer suggestions. In general, that’s always a good thing for any company, if you can get that open dialog going.”
Woodward Radio Group: The power of communication
It’s probably not surprising that Woodward Radio Group, which operates six radio stations between Green Bay and Appleton, does an effective job communicating its wellness program goals to its employees. That’s the business they are in and B2B’s wellness award panelists said the company’s polished and professional communication materials were evidence of a strong marketing resume.
No, what surprised the panelists was that the Woodward wellness program has achieved such positive results in an industry stereotypically regarded with a sedentary employee population not generally thought to be good prospects for a healthy lifestyle.
“For them to have a robust wellness program that’s making a difference is semi-miraculous,” said Brand. “Their number of communication touches is outstanding.”
“A lot of the credit goes to our HR department,” said Greg Lawrence, Woodward Radio Group’s FM sales manager and member of parent company Woodward Communication Inc.’s wellness committee. “They’ve really done a tremendous job of communicating the program to our employee owners. Sometimes you wonder if it’s going to fall on deaf ears, so you put the information out there and hope they buy in. So far they have.”
Kelly Radandt, general manager of the 69-employee Woodward Radio Group, credits president and CEO Tom Woodward with setting the tone in company culture.
“He talked many years ago about the importance of trying to promote overall health, because that improves our quality as a company, so that’s something we’ve focused on for many years now and our engagement over the years has really increased,” Radandt said.
Woodward began offering HRAs to those participating in the company’s health care plan in 2008 and expanded it to all of its employee owners in 2014. Employees and spouses who complete the screening process receive a $300 annual payroll incentive. Those identified as having a high-risk for chronic health issues through the HRA must complete monthly health coaching to receive the premium incentive.
Woodward achieved a respectable participation rate of 57 percent in 2015 and has seen marked improvements in its overall wellness score, as well as in several specific health categories. The overall wellness score was 84 in 2015 – up from 82 in 2012 and above the national average of 80.
As the award panelists noted, the quantity and quality of communication was the key to the program’s success. Woodward’s communication initiatives include:
- Huddles, which are weekly meetings where company leaders project financial benchmarks for the month, quarter and year, a discussion of the impact of health care costs on the company’s bottom line and on the “Stake in the Outcome” bonus program, which is tied to the performance of Woodward’s health care plan. A recent Huddles meeting, for example, noted health care costs were over budget in 2015 and encouraged plan participants to use preferred pharmacies and mail order to reduce prescription drug costs.
- Woodward’s InFocus quarterly newsletter includes a health section focusing on topics with headlines such as Prescription Drug Prior Authorization Savings, Healthcare Consumerism, Flu Shots, Understanding a Deductible, and the Shingles Vaccine.
- Annual benefit meetings include presentations by a benefits consultant and prescription benefit manager on health care trends, plan benchmarks, consumer tips, and the importance of preventive care.
- Annual HRA meetings include discussions about the importance of understanding the results of biometric screening and the impact of health care costs on Woodward’s bottom line.
- ‘Do You Knows’ are company-wide email communications. A recent Do You Know discussed a change in prescription drug coverage driven by cost.
- ‘Restroom Reviews’ are educational information posted in the bathroom stalls, refreshed every two weeks, on topics such as health care consumerism, ergonomics, financial wellness and stress management.
Woodward’s plan includes a variety of amenities, including a discount with the Fox Valley YMCA, an employee assistance program, on-site yoga classes subsidized by the company, on-site massages, retirement planning and financial wellness counseling, and free on-site flu shots.
The wellness award panelists were impressed by the variety and creativity of Woodward’s wellness events, including a hydration challenge and a pedometer challenge.
“We offer many different events and challenges throughout the calendar year to keep people motivated. The events typically come with some kind of opportunity to win a prize,” according to Becky Wiegel, Woodward’s corporate human resource director.
What’s next for Woodward’s innovative wellness program will depend in large part on the results of the next round of HRAs, as well as an in-depth health survey of Woodward’s employees.
“Every year we do a health survey as we start to plan for the coming year and we combine the information we receive from that with the results of our health screenings, which give us an anonymous snapshot of what our health care challenges are. If there are any red flags, we focus on that in the coming year.”
Highlights from other nominees
Other employers from the region submitting nominations for our 2016 awards still had some remarkable components on their wellness programs which captured the attention of our panelists.
Buechel Stone Corp. in Fond du Lac rewards employees for having regular dental exams, recognizing it’s as important as an annual physical check up with a doctor in early diagnosis of certain diseases. The stone quarrying company also plans to open an on-site gym for its employees and spouses this summer.
In its small office with just 16 employees, wisnet.com in Fond du Lac has an onsite workout facility and provides access to an on-site personal trainer. The marketing and web development firm also offers free healthy snacks and $2 healthy lunches at its onsite wisnet café.
Menasha-based electrical systems contractor Faith Technologies also provides no-cost healthy snacks in its breakrooms for employees to enjoy, including oatmeal, fresh fruit and green tea.
One of the fastest growing trends recognized across many Corporate Wellness Award nominees during the past two years is a substantial employer contribution toward the cost of a digital fitness device such as a VivoFit or Fitbit. A number of employers will reimburse employees for half the cost of such a device, while a handful of employers enable employees excelling in the wellness program to earn a free device. n
Rick Berg is a writer and editor based in Green Bay.