Employee health could be your clients' greatest investment

Boost employee loyalty by offering programs that show commitment to their well-being.

(This commentary by Seth Serxner, chief health officer, Optum Health, originally appeared in the online edition of Human Resource Executive on April 24, 2018 and is available online here.)

Traditional employee-engagement drivers, such as strong relationships with colleagues and meaningful work, can be difficult for HR and benefit executives to directly influence. If you’re searching for a more tangible way to boost engagement, it may be time to look at your company’s wellness program. New research suggests that mere access to several wellness programs can influence employee loyalty, work relationships and job satisfaction.

Optum and the National Business Group on Health recently conducted a survey of more than 1,200 employees at companies with at least 3,000 workers to evaluate the impact of health and wellness programs on employee engagement. The survey assessed four key “markers” or indicators of employee engagement and two outcomes of employee engagement.

Markers of employee engagement included: emotional affinity (attachment toward job), personal well-being (taking responsibility for their own health), social connections (a feeling of community at work), and supportive culture (belief that their employer is interested in their well-being).

Outcomes of employee engagement included: job performance (motivation, productivity levels and commitment to excel at work) and employer loyalty (level of commitment to the organization and willingness to act as an advocate in front of customers and other stakeholders).

Access to several wellness programs helps drive engagement 

According to the survey, having access to employer-sponsored health and wellness programs is positively correlated with employee engagement. For purposes of this study, some of the health and wellness program categories included those that helped respondents:

  • Assess their health (biometric screenings, health assessments);
  • Get healthy (wellness coaching, on-site medical clinics);
  • Get the most value from their prescription drug plan (discounted prescription prices);
  • Improve their mental health (employee assistance, stress or sleep programs); and
  • Stay healthy and prevent illness (flu shots, gym discounts, fitness challenges).

The research discovered that all the markers and outcomes of engagement were proportionately affected by the number of health and wellness program categories offered to employees.

For example, 46 percent of employees at companies offering seven or eight program categories strongly agreed that they are proud to be a part of the company, compared with only 14 percent of employees whose employer offered no programs. Additionally, at companies offering seven or eight program categories, 26 percent strongly felt that their employer takes a genuine interest in their well-being, compared with only three percent of employees whose employer offered one to three program categories.

Employer loyalty was also found to be stronger at companies offering several program categories. For example, 35 percent of employees at companies offering seven or eight program categories said they were extremely likely to recommend their employer, compared with 14 percent of employees at companies offering one to three program categories.

For HR professionals, the message is clear: engage senior leadership in a dialogue about the importance of developing a sustainable number of programs that support employees’ overall health and well-being.

Participation correlates with engagement 

While the research found that mere access to wellness programs was an engagement driver, it also discovered a relationship between participation in health and wellness programs and markers of engagement at work. For example, when asked if their employer values them – a question of emotional affinity—30 percent of employees who frequently participate in wellness programs strongly agreed, while only 19 percent of workers who occasionally participate felt similarly.

Another marker of engagement—the perception that their employer provides a supportive culture—was also correlated with participation rates. Twenty-two percent of employees who frequently participate in health and wellness programs strongly agreed that “my employer makes healthy choices the path of least resistance at work” compared to just six percent of those who never participate.

Wellness-program participation also correlated to strong social connections at work. Nearly half of workers who frequently participate in wellness programs report having a good relationship with co-workers. Similarly, 35 percent of those frequently participating in wellness programs believed their employer promotes positive relationships among colleagues; yet only 23 percent of employees who don’t participate felt that way.

HR departments can help generate more workplace engagement by advocating for wellness programs that go beyond physical health. That could mean, for example, building a complementary suite of services that supports employees’ mental, social and financial well-being.

Driving business value

In addition to researching what drives engagement, the survey also looked at outcomes of engagement, including those that add value to the business. Job performance, for example, was also found to be connected to levels of wellness program participation. According to the survey, 29 percent of those who frequently participate in health and wellness programs believe they are much better than co-workers at meeting or exceeding job requirements and deadlines, compared with 20 percent of those who never participate.

Employer-sponsored health and wellness programs can make a positive difference in the way employees feel about their work, HR managers should collaborate with their colleagues to develop creative approaches for engaging employees, and report successes on a regular basis. For these programs to ultimately succeed however, they must have support outside of the human resources department, particularly with business-line leaders.

Copyright 2019© LRP Publications. Reprinted with permission from Human Resource Executive® (www.hrexecutive.com). 

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