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New Study Shows Millennials Want Healthier Workplaces

Guess what? Millennials want their employers involved in their health! Dr. Carmella Sebastian explains why smart companies are moving to implement workplace wellness programs—and how yours can get started now.

A lot has been written about the impact of millennials on America’s workforce. And it’s true that young people—those born between 1980 and 1995—have very different skills and values from the Gen-Xers and boomers who came before them. Companies seeking to engage them often focus on their tech savvy, their teamwork bias, and their desire for work/life balance. But as recently reported, a new Aon Hewitt study reveals another way to create a millennial-friendly culture: Help them manage their health. • Dr. Carmella Sebastian, also known as Dr. Carm or The Wellness Whisperer™, says smart companies will heed this advice in light of the coming workplace demographic shift.

“Millennials are very comfortable with the idea of employers being involved in their health,” says Dr. Carm, a WELCOA (Wellness Council of America)–certified expert in workplace wellness. At Florida Blue, she oversees the National Committee for Quality Assurance-accredited wellness program “Better You from Blue” and manages over 100 client consultations per year. “And as boomers retire and millennials surge in the door, the demand to integrate wellness into the workplace will continue to grow. Best to get on top of this now.”

The article spells out some intriguing numbers from the Aon Hewitt study:

• Forty-six percent want to gather as much quantifiable data about their health as possible.

• Sixty-four percent say that cash (or another tangible benefit) would most motivate them to participate in a workplace wellness program.

• Thirty-three percent indicate that providing cash-based incentives would most help them achieve their 2014 health goals.

Workplace wellness may be defined as any workplace health promotion activity or organizational policy designed to support healthy behavior in the workplace and to improve health outcomes. Participating companies might offer health education and coaching, medical screenings, weight management programs, on-site fitness programs, smoking cessation counseling, etc. They might also allow flex time for exercise, offer healthy options in vending machines or provide incentives for participation.

The best news is well-designed, well-run wellness programs pay off. In the February 2010 issue of Health Affairs, several wellness program studies were published, revealing that medical costs fell $3.27 for every $1 spent on wellness. Furthermore, absenteeism costs fell $2.73 for every $1 spent. That is a 6:1 ROI!

“Harder to quantify, but just as impactful, is the fact that your investment in your employees’ well-being will jump-start their morale, loyalty and engagement—all of which is good news for their productivity and your bottom line,” adds Dr. Carm. “And since the millennials who are driving the wellness movement will be in the workforce for quite some time, think of proactively engaging with them as a smart long-term investment.”

Dr. Carm shares 10 components to include as you develop your own company’s workplace wellness program:

Designate a wellness champion. As human beings, we learn by watching others and patterning our behavior after theirs. That’s why Dr. Carm recommends designating a “wellness champion,” someone visible and well-known throughout the organization who is willing to be in the vanguard of implementing new wellness initiatives. Be sure to choose a person who has the authority to make decisions for the program and who can obtain the necessary funding to turn ideas into reality.

“In most cases this will be your CEO or chief medical officer, but not always,” Dr. Carm says. “I once had a CEO who hated to exercise and loved desserts. If your CEO is not game for becoming a wellness champion, have him appoint someone who is. (In this case, that was me!) It’s hard to tell 6,000 people, ‘Do what I say and not what I do.’ Remember, people will be watching their wellness champion. I had someone come up to me in line while I was buying a bagel to ask me why I was eating carbs!”

Form a wellness committee. Your wellness champion can’t be everywhere all the time, so find others who share the same vision and who are also willing to carry the wellness torch forward. Make sure to include all age ranges—millennials included—in this group. Organize them into a committee with a charter and a budget. They will be empowered, and their excitement will be infectious.

“Don’t choose a group solely composed of ‘health nuts’ who are running marathons,” advises Dr. Carm. “Be sure to also pick some people who have struggled with their wellness behaviors. They will be easier for most people to relate to. For example, when my company went smoke-free, we had a committee made up of current smokers, prior smokers and those who had never smoked. When we convinced the current smokers that we were on the right path, the news spread through the organization, and implementation of the program was that much easier.”

Know your population. If you’ve seen one company, you’ve … seen one company. The fact is healthcare and its associated costs differ dramatically from industry to industry and from organization to organization. (Think about how truck drivers differ from teachers, or how short order cooks differ from lawyers.) Before you get the wellness ball rolling, you need to know what you’re up against. Are your employees mostly sedentary? Are there a lot of smokers? Does your company provide a gym where the majority of employees exercise on a daily basis? All of these things will affect your healthcare costs.

“One key aspect of knowing your population is reviewing your claims with your health insurer on a quarterly basis,” comments Dr. Carm. “You also need to find out the reasons for absences (often, your worker’s comp provider can give you this information) and how many employees are accessing behavioral health providers (check with your employee assistance program vendor). But that’s not enough. By the time claims are filed and employees are absent, the proverbial horse is out of the barn.

“That’s why it’s especially important to assess the current status of your employees’ health,” she continues. “How do you find that out? Use the health risk assessment provided by your insurer and consider holding a health fair where you can have biometrics done (blood pressure, cholesterol level, height and weight, etc.). This will give you real-time information about your population and will reveal what your wellness program should focus on. Since millennials place a high value on quantifiable health data, you’ll probably have an especially enthusiastic response from them.”

Assess your company’s culture. Dr. Carm suggests doing a cultural assessment (also called an environmental assessment) before you begin any wellness program. This will tell you what your employees really think about how health-friendly your organization is (which is often very different from what you think they think). The assessment should answer questions such as these: Are the stairs available and easily accessed for use? Is every celebration accompanied by a cake or a veggie tray? What kind of snacks are in the vending machine?

“As part of the cultural assessment, find out what health topics and initiatives interest your employees,” Dr. Carm recommends. “Putting together a great outdoor walking program won’t really be successful if you live in a place where the average temperature is 10 degrees and your employees would rather be bowling. Ask what your employees would like to do and how interested they are in improving their health. Make the survey anonymous, and you’ll get their honest answers.”

Go for the low-hanging fruit. As you begin to look at the data, a picture of your company’s wellness challenges will start to form. Your biggest problems will stand out. For instance, maybe 25 percent of your employees smoke, or there’s a high rate of obesity in your workforce. These numbers might actually be the easiest to move, so focus on the issues they represent first.

“At one company I worked with, smoking numbers were very high, and the rate of bronchitis and lung cancers were also higher than average,” recounts Dr. Carm. “So the wellness committee decided to grasp this low-hanging fruit and go smoke-free. In other words, no more smoking in front of the building or on any company property. This was a good strategy, because studies have shown that going smoke-free can decrease smoking rates in a company by 6 percent. People who are smoking socially or for stress relief won’t put up with the hassle of having to walk off property or giving up their lunch hour to find a suitable place to light up. We had 10 people quit smoking in the first month!

“When you are starting a workplace wellness program, you really want a successful first year,” she adds. “You need a win to let employees know that this program is not just a ‘flavor of the month’ but is something that your organization believes in and will invest in.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for freebies. Paying for a wellness program can be costly, but not if you know where to go for discounted services and freebies. First, make sure that you are getting all the help you possibly can from your health insurance carrier. It is in their best interest to keep your employees healthy and you happy, and that means low claim costs. At the very least, your insurer should be able to provide a health risk assessment, and beyond that, most will cover the cost of having a health fair with biometrics. The labs can run through the medical claims so that should not be an extra charge.

“If your insurer isn’t willing to help with a health fair, or if you are a small employer, health risk assessments are available free of charge online—and you can collate the information yourself,” points out Dr. Carm. “Another great source is The Wellness Council of America provides all kinds of free stuff for the asking.” She also recommends looking for help in the following areas:

• Ask local healthcare providers to perform biometrics. Doctors who are new to the area can get established by spending a couple hours of doing blood pressure checks, and health fairs are a great way for hospitals and group practices to market themselves.

• Weight Watchers will come to your office and do a program at lunch time as long as you have 15 people to participate.

• The American Lung Association can provide assistance with a smoking cessation program. And as a result of a smoking litigation settlement that occurred several years ago, various states have great—and free—online resources for smoking.

• The American Diabetes Association may be able to assist with a diabetes education program or free screening.

“The bottom line is, don’t be afraid to ask,” says Dr. Carm. “The worst a person or organization can say is no!”

Give your facilities a health makeover. For instance, if you have stairs, make sure they are safe and brightly lit. Place signs by the elevators encouraging your employees to use the stairs rather than the elevators. If you provide food on-site, ask the cafeteria to load up on fruits and vegetables and avoid heavily processed foods. Encourage your crews on the job site to bring their lunch from home to avoid eating unhealthy foods from a food truck. (They’re called “roach coaches” and “gut trucks” for a reason!)

“The same goes for the vending machines—ask the vendor to pack them full of pretzels and nuts rather than cookies and chips,” Dr. Carm notes. “And regarding food in general, remember that if you make the healthy items cheaper, they will be purchased.

“If your company is situated on a large enough plot of land, think about starting a walking program,” she suggests. “I often see companies’ outdoor spaces going unused, which is a shame! Pedometers are really cheap, and people love to get out and walk. Some companies have even instituted walking meetings, which I think is great. Walking is a terrific form of exercise, and all you need is a good pair of sneakers. Just be careful about walking off-site for liability purposes.”

Be sure to incentivize. It’s important to start your workplace wellness program gently and to reward employees for participating. You want people to understand that this is not a heavy-handed company and that your first priority is their health. So to begin with, Dr. Carm simply recommends making participation in the program your goal. Be sure to communicate that personal information will be kept in the strictest confidence no matter the size of your company. As employees get used to the program, which can take a couple of years, you can move to outcomes as a barometer of success. And in the meantime, incentivize early and often. Remember that millennials cite tangible benefits as a big motivator.

“The good news is incentives don’t have to break the bank,” she assures. “You can get employees to participate in a walking program for as little as the cost of a pedometer and a water bottle. A T-shirt can also be a great motivator. And nothing beats a plum parking space for a month to get someone thinking about good health habits!

“As your program advances, you will want to tie the incentives you offer into the benefit plan,” Dr. Carm continues. “One way is to offer a higher cost share by the company for certain outcomes. Another is to require employees to complete a health risk assessment in order to get healthcare coverage. Some companies even mandate participation in a disease management program in return for health benefits. You will want to consider mandates only as your program advances into years three through five, though.”

Celebrate your successes. As your workplace wellness program advances, transparency is important. Your employees need to know about setbacks and challenges, certainly, and they definitely need to celebrate successes! Whenever your organization focuses on and eventually reaches a goal, make a big deal about the achievement in order to maintain and increase morale.

“Take every opportunity to share participation numbers, statistics on progress, or best of all, human interest stories,” advises Dr. Carm. “When a company I worked for went smoke-free, we let everyone in the organization know when someone successfully quit smoking (with the individual’s agreement, of course). We also held a celebration for the ‘quitters,’ during which each person told his or her story. This helped not only the smoking cessation program, but the wellness strategy overall, because everyone could see and enjoy the program’s tangible real-world benefits.

“Remember, everyone enjoys celebrations and rewards,” she adds. “Even your most health-resistant employees will put forth a little more effort when they know there’s something in it for them!”

Evaluate your outcomes and plan, plan, plan. When organizations start workplace wellness programs, a common complaint from employees is that the programs are only another “flavor of the month,” and that they will be short-lived. That being the case, you need to show that good health is part of the fabric of your organization—not a passing fad. Nothing does this more effectively than scheduling a yearly review of your program’s results and proactively planning for the coming year.

“These two activities are critical when incentives become part of the benefits plan as this is communicated to employees during open enrollment,” she adds. “Regardless, your wellness committee should formally review the outcome of the previous program year, as well as compile goals and suggest a budget for the next year. And, of course, their conclusions and recommendations should be communicated to all employees as a continuous quality process.”

Over time, these programs create a “culture of wellness” that’s good not only for your company and employees, but for the entire community, asserts Dr. Carm.

“With the Affordable Care Act aiming a spotlight on preventative care, it’s time for the business world to increase its role in helping people change their lifestyles,” she says. “In fact, the legislation includes a $9 million national initiative designed to establish and evaluate workplace wellness programs. As you focus on your own organizational health initiatives, know that millennials are the perfect partners to help develop and roll them out. Young, health-conscious employees can be your staunchest allies and wellness ambassadors for years to come.”

Dr. Carmella Sebastian is board certified in internal medicine and was in active clinical practice before joining Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Northeastern Pennsylvania, where she was vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer. She is a renowned expert in workplace wellness and enjoys WELCOA certification. At Florida Blue, she oversees the National Committee for Quality Assurance-accredited wellness program “Better You from Blue” and manages over 100 client consultations per year.

Dr. Carm is also a nationally known wellness educator with a special interest in women at mid-life and women’s wellness. She recently published her first book, “Sex and Spaghetti Sauce: My Italian Mother’s Recipe for Getting Healthy and Getting Busy in Your 50s and Beyond.”

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