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Wellness programs in 2016: What employers need to know

Original post by Sheryl Smolkin, ebn.benefitnews.com

In 2016 an increasing number of employers will buy in to a shifting perspective on wellness that will move from simply supporting the physical and mental health of their workforce to enhancing their quality of life by promoting social connectedness, job satisfaction and financial security.

As a vice president with the National Business Group on Health, LuAnn Heinen works with large self-insured employers. “We don’t need to ask anymore if our members offer any kind of a wellness program because virtually all of them are doing something,” she says.

A survey conducted by the NBGH and Fidelity in early 2015 revealed that onsite flu shots (90%), health fairs/educational seminars, promotions (84%) and health risk assessments (83%) were the most prevalent health risk management programs offered by employers.

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Heinen says typical wellness programs have been growing in popularity for the last decade because employers viewed them as a way to deal with increasing healthcare costs and to improve the health of their employee populations. Nevertheless, she notes, “recently there is an exciting new trend as more and more companies are looking beyond wellness to employee well-being.”

One aspect of total wellness that is expected to show continued growth in 2016 is a focus on financial security, personalized by the employees’ stage of life. “For example, millennials are interested in financial education about buying a house, having a baby and saving for their kids’ college education,” she says. “How to handle student loans and manage other debts are also big areas of concern.”

Bruce Elliott, manager of human resources at the Society of Human Resources Management, agrees that the trend to supporting employee financial wellness is on the rise. He points to PwC’s new employee benefit announced in September which will pay $1,200 a year for its associates and senior associates with one to six years of work experience to help reduce their student burden. The company expects that over time, this benefit could help reduce student loan principal and interest obligations by as much as $10,000 per employee, and shorten loan payoff periods by up to three years.

When it comes to segmented wellness programs, Elliott says they can be delivered in many ways including via lunch and learns, webcasts and individual appointments with financial planners. “But demographics are really key to programs offered,” he says. “It’s one thing to offer robust retirement planning services but if the average age of your employee population is 28, what kind of bang for your buck are you going to get, because retirement is not really their focus.”

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What other wellness trends do experts anticipate moving into 2016?

“Employers will find ways to re-energize their approach to programs supporting the physical health of their population to make these programs a more positive employee experience and increase their engagement,” believes Heinen.

She cites the example of retail giant Target offering Fitbit activity trackers to its 335,000 U.S. employees as a way to improve workers’ fitness and reduce health costs.

She also believes we will see more benefit and HR managers getting out of their silos and partnering with other internal groups to support the health and well-being of employees. “This could involve working with the real estate or facilities group to look at changing workspaces, purchase standing desks or setting aside more spaces for social connection like coffee bars. Providing healthy meals in the cafeteria and promoting health and safety will also require partnerships with other departments,” she says.

Elliott believes that in 2016 more employers will look for creative ways to enhance the financial wellness of employees. For example, he notes that that Starbucks now pays most of the tuition costs for employees who get a degree from Arizona State University Online.

The coffee company announced in September 2015 that employees who work at least 20 hours a week and enroll in the university’s online bachelor’s degree will get $6,500 – about half of their tuition – reimbursed for the first two years plus full tuition for the final two.

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In the medical-wellness space, Elliott sees the use of DNA testing and genetics to develop personalized disease prevention plans as definitely leading edge. In fact, Newtopia recently signed an agreement with Aetna to begin offering its enterprise health engagement platform to the insurance company’s largest employer customers and their employees.

The agreement follows the successful completion of a robust pilot program with Aetna employees who had, or were at risk for, metabolic syndrome, a combination of health factors that increase an individual’s chance of developing diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. By analyzing key health markers and health benefit claims in the pilot program, Aetna verified that participants lost weight, reduced their waist size and had high levels of engagement in the program.

And because Elliott views provision of mental health services currently as the weakest link in employer wellness programs, he predicts 2016 will bring continued expansion of employee assistance programs and mental health provider networks.

Sheryl Smolkin is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Toronto.