Wellness programs were introduced during the 1970s fitness craze, but more recently corporate wellness programs have become a priority for organizations large and small—and the career opportunities for health and exercise professionals have never been better. More than 90% of organizations surveyed by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) provide at least one wellness benefit and more than three in five have wellness budgets, with more than half expecting those budgets to increase in 2018 and 2019. Moreover, two-thirds of human resources managers report that, in the past five years, their companies have broadened health and wellness options.
The research is straightforward. Unhealthy employees cost employers money and impact the bottom line of a business—from healthcare utilization and lost productivity to workplace accidents and absenteeism. Eighty-six percent of the nation’s $2.7 trillion in annual healthcare expenditures are for people with chronic and mental health conditions. Furthermore, productivity losses from missed work cost employers $225.8 billion, or $1,685 per employee, each year. Most of these costs are attributable to six preventable chronic diseases: cancer, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease and pulmonary conditions. In fact, 87.5% of healthcare claims costs are due to an individual’s lifestyle.
With the current state of Americans’ health, it’s no wonder employers have taken on responsibility for improving the well-being of their employees. Workplace wellness takes many forms and, more recently, a move toward a holistic approach has organizations focused on all aspects of their employees’ well-being, from nutrition and fitness to financial and mental health. To improve employee health, an organization may have their internal HR team develop and implement a program and bring in outside experts to run seminars and host fitness classes. Other employers may hire these professionals to be part of their internal team. And some employers hire an outside wellness vendor to handle all aspects of their program.
With so many options, how can health and exercise professionals get involved in corporate wellness? How can you get started and what positions are available that fit your experience and expertise? Let’s take a look at future wellness trends and determine how you can prepare yourself for a career in corporate wellness.
Programs Will Be Outcomes Based
Over the years, many employers have focused on getting their employees to participate in wellness programming without taking the time to determine if the programs they have implemented are actually improving employee health. From one-off programs such as wellness challenges to offering weekly fitness classes, the goal was to introduce wellness in the workplace and get people to sign up. No real thought was given to assessing employees’ interest and/or needs, understanding their preferred learning methods or measuring the return on investment (ROI).
The passage of the Affordable Care Act, however, which increased wellness incentives from 20% to 30% of the cost of health coverage, has prompted innovative organizations to transition their wellness programs to an outcomes-based model. This more aggressive approach, which rewards employees for getting and staying healthy, can be more effective in improving employee health. It also provides opportunities for health and exercise professionals.
Each organization that develops an outcomes-based wellness program needs guidance on various aspects of the program. For instance, an outcomes-based employer program may define certain biometric guidelines that employees must meet in order to earn a financial incentive. The program could be defined as meeting accepted standards for total cholesterol, body mass index, blood glucose and blood pressure, and being a non-smoker. Each employee may earn a $100 stipend for each category that he or she meets. A well-versed health and exercise professional can help the organization set realistic standards and guidelines that their employees will need to meet to qualify for the incentive. In addition, assessing the population, measuring and tracking of various health measures and maintaining employee privacy are important components of outcomes-based approaches.
Furthermore, the law requires that employers offer employees who don’t meet set targets a reasonable alternative to earn the incentive. Employers need help developing guidelines and programs that meet the reasonable alternative standard. And guidelines aren’t the only thing organizations need; they need professionals to help develop wellness programming that addresses the various risk factors affecting their population—from nutrition and fitness initiatives to programs that focus on metabolic syndrome and heart health.
Employers Will Focus on Nutrition
Nutrition is an essential component of wellness. Employees need to be educated in proper nutrition—from food choices to portion sizes—to improve their health. While exercise is indeed important due to its health benefits, it can make weight loss difficult, or even impossible, if it is not combined with healthy eating. The workplace is the perfect place to instill healthy eating habits, for both the employee and the employer.
A recent survey of office managers and employees uncovered a major obstacle to any wellness initiative: food in the office, which includes everything from birthday celebrations and the office vending machine to coworkers with candy jars on their desks. In fact, more than 50% of employees reported that office celebrations and snacks brought in by colleagues did the most to jeopardize their healthy eating goals. Moreover, 44% of employees reported eating more healthfully when they worked from home. It is critical for employers to include healthy eating and nutrition education as part of a wellness program, and this includes making changes to their onsite cafes, vending machines and office celebrations.
There is an opportunity for health and exercise professionals to work with employers and onsite food vendors to provide general nutrition guidelines. It’s often necessary for employers to overhaul onsite lunch options and vending machines to align with wellness program objectives. A health and exercise professional can provide critical guidance, including identifying and sourcing healthy eating choices. Some employers develop initiatives to bring food in from local farms to serve in their cafeteria. Others start an onsite garden with simple herbs and vegetables, or foster relationships with community-supported agrculture groups (known as CSAs) to bring in healthy produce that employees can take home along with ideas for meal preparation. In addition, assistance with developing healthy eating guidelines, choosing healthy options at local restaurants and modifying recipes can all be a part of prompting nutrition at the workplace. Organizations also need direction in how to celebrate birthdays and other milestones with healthy snacks rather than cake and cookies. Once these initiatives are in place, employers need health and exercise professionals to encourage employees to follow accepted nutrition practices. There may also be a need to bring in or refer employees to registered dietitians when necessary.
Alicia Blittner, M.S., R.D.N., employee wellness manager and corporate nutritionist at FreshDirect, divides her time between internal and external wellness focuses. She works with FreshDirect employees to provide healthy personal lifestyle choices, while also handling accurate consumer-facing information on the company’s product nutrition labeling and ingredients. She believes it is “imperative that nutrition and health professionals continue pushing important wellness programming to employers so that we can continue to improve public health in thoughtful, convenient ways for our employees,” and notes that “health professionals can get involved and provide comprehensive wellness programming including: annual health screenings, health and wellness education courses via lunch & learns, one-on-one nutrition counseling sessions (with an in-house registered dietitian), weekly healthy snacks, quarterly wellness fitness challenges, weekly meditation sessions, fitness offerings and more.”
Wellness Programs Will Become Personalized and High Touch
Off-the-shelf wellness programs are losing ground to customized wellness programs that meet the needs of each employer and employee. This trend will continue to grow as employees demand more personalization for their specific health needs. Whether it’s the availability of an onsite personal trainer or one-on-one health coaching, there will be many opportunities to play a role in employee wellness.
Employers will tap into the knowledge of health and exercise professionals like you to create a culture of wellness and develop programming that is enticing and engaging to their employee populations. Professionals will run onsite programs, team challenges and competitions, and provide health coaching. Some employers will hire individuals to serve as an onsite fitness liaison or to build out and manage a company fitness facility. Fitness instructors can offer regular classes and have the opportunity to work with individual employees on health and fitness goals. Remember to focus on the entire employee population and offer programming to meet the needs of employees with different levels of fitness and interests.
Employers Will Use Wellness Technology as a Tool
The personalization of wellness will continue to drive and expand the use of technology in wellness programs. Technology is an opportunity for all employers, large and small, to develop
wellness programs tailored to their needs and goals, while creating programs that align with their organization’s culture. Employers will tap into this desire by using more digital platforms, apps and wearable devices for use in the office, and working remotely or after-hours. A 2017 survey by Springbuk found more than one-third of employers use wearable devices to develop effective, value-driven corporate wellness programs and an additional 50% are considering purchasing wearable devices.
As employers adopt various wellness technologies, they need to understand the best way to include devices such as Fitbits, Apple Watches and other health trackers as a means to promote behavior change. As a health and exercise professional, you can provide invaluable guidance on how and when to use these tools to drive participation and improve health outcomes. In addition, you can be instrumental in designing and implementing physical activity based challenges that promote engagement in all levels of fitness experience.
Wellness Programs Will Become Data Driven
The increased use of technology in wellness programs will allow employers to use data to develop and drive programming. Data will also be a key factor in working to keep healthcare costs in check. By collecting and analyzing healthcare utilization data, employers can evaluate the health risks facing their workforce and develop programs to address those risks. Data can also be used to assess participation and engagement rates and find out which programs resonate with employees’ interests. By collecting well-being data on technology platforms, employers can recommend content or specific programs and fine-tune offerings based on employee interest.
Employers need help developing programs and an overall strategy to gather data to properly assess and measure the effectiveness of wellness initiatives. Gathering data at the outset of a program—whether from screenings, a needs and interest survey and/or from health records—will be vital to determining employees’ needs and interests. The findings from the data create opportunities to help employers implement appropriate programming, from launching a biometric screening fair and running fitness challenges to offering exercise classes and developing ideas to get employees to move (walking meetings, standing desks).
“Wellness in the workplace, when done correctly, brings great benefits,” says Valeria Tivnan, M.S., director of population health strategy and well-being at EBS, Insurance Brokers, Inc. In her role at EBS, Tivnan supports and collaborates with clients to develop, deliver and measure their wellness and well-being programs using a data-driven approach. She continues: “From attracting new talent and retaining existing talent to improving productivity, employee engagement and population health, wellness programs can directly impact a company’s workforce and consequently improve a company’s bottom line.”
With all the changes and trends, it’s an exciting time to be involved in wellness and there are many different ways health and exercise professionals can play a role. Employers will secure the help they need in several different ways—by enlisting the assistance of their health insurance carrier, by hiring a wellness vendor or consultant, by hiring a health or exercise professional as an employee, or by contracting for services as needed.
Given these trends in worksite wellness, the opportunities to expand and grow your career and business have never been greater. It’s up to you, however, to take advantage of them.