How You Can Use Data to Improve Corporate Wellness

There is a deluge of data in every organizational department, from which HR is not exempt. Corporate wellness accounts for the wellbeing of every employee through various health and wellness initiatives. We discuss how a data-backed strategy influences all such efforts.  

Introduction to Corporate Wellness

Corporate wellness programs, employee wellness programs and workplace wellness programs are all different terms, but they have the same underlying principle. It is to support healthy behaviors of all employees in an organization and improve their health outcomes.  

In today’s age, not running any sort of wellness program for your employees is ill-advised. Not necessarily because corporations are doing it from the goodness of their heart. But because it makes sense economically. 

A meta-analysis on corporate wellness programs found that for every $1 spent on worksite wellness, medical costs fell by $3.27 and absenteeism costs fell by $2.73. What more could you ask for? 

 Also, when particularly dealing with chronic disease programs, wellness program initiatives can lead to a return of investment of almost 4 times! This is because chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart failure account for an overwhelming majority of the costs in healthcare systems worldwide. 

In recent years, the word wellbeing is also used alongside wellness, which takes on a more holistic approach to health. It considers both physical and mental health.  

It is one thing for a company to offer a wellness program. It is quite another to offer a wellness program that is comprehensive. 53% of firms with under 200 employees offer at least one of the following programs: smoking cessation, weight management, behavioral or lifestyle change. This number shoots up to 83% for firms with 200 employees or more.  

But in a study looking at 160 worksites, only 10% had wellness programs that included all three components of exercise, nutrition and stress.  

So while the likelihood of operating a wellness program increases with company size, well-rounded employee wellness programs are harder to come by. This can be due to many reasons. Chiefly: cost, complexities around privacy and management difficulties.  

Next Frontier for Corporate Wellness

We briefly touched on the prevalence of employee wellness programs across companies, especially large corporations. For large organizations employing thousands of employees, running a corporate wellness program is a no-brainer.  

In order to be most productive, people need to be physically and mentally well. It’s a matter of optimizing your workforce. So maintenance is as big as improvement.  

But workplace wellness programs are by no means just restricted to large organizations who are at the mid-market or enterprise level, with at least 100 employees. 39% of worksites with 10 to 24 employees have a wellness program. It is 60% for worksites with 50-99 employees.  

In a survey conducted by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) where more than half the respondent companies had a staff size of under 500, 3 out of every 4 companies offered wellness programs. 

What this shows is that companies of all sizes are beginning to think of their wellness strategy. Harvard Business Review reports that over 60% of companies around the globe have a dedicated wellness budget for their employees.  

But what an employee wellbeing program looks like depends on the budget size that is earmarked for health & wellness. It alludes to the lack of well-rounded programs we mentioned earlier.   

It all depends on how much you want to achieve with your corporate wellness program. The scale of options that are available ranges from very lax to very mandatory, and from a single initiative to hundreds of separate initiatives.  

Making Sense of What you Want To Do With Data

Data is not life. But when you consider all the physiological signals a human body produces which can be quantified, it might as well be.  

For example, there is such a concept called a digital twin, where using hundreds of data points such as one’s weight, heart rate, pulse oximetry, and behavior, an artificial twin of the person is constructed in the lab. Before any intervention or treatment is given to the person, it is first tested on the digital twin to see the reactions. 

If you have enough data, anything is possible. It’s why we chose to write on this topic. We see the impact of artificial intelligence and big data on society, and it is inevitably affecting the way corporate wellness programs are being run as well. 

Begin by Measuring

Before you design a corporate wellness program, you should know what your people’s needs and wants are. They might not be the same things.

To understand what they need you will actually have to collect information on the current health statuses of all employees. In the strictest sense of the word “health”, these are the biometric indicators that will let you know if any part of the employee population is at risk of health deterioration. 

To understand what they want is more subjective, but perhaps just as important, if not more. This is because it drives engagement in all the health & wellness initiatives that are a part of the program. You could have the most expensive state-of-the-art wellness program out there, but it will not yield results if there isn’t enough participation.   

In order for employees to participate, there must be a fine balance between enforcement and freedom. Good behavior and habits that are conducive to better health outcomes cannot be forced upon anyone.  

Rather, it is possible to create an environment that always promotes greater wellbeing for all employees. Part of this wellbeing naturally extends to health outcomes. People are encouraged and motivated to develop good habits such as exercising, maintaining a good diet, and working on their mindfulness. 

Data to improve wellness - women with arms up

Understand What Employees Need and Want 

Firstly, you must understand the health of your organization by surveying all employees. They must feel secure enough to disclose their sentiments about health, which is a sensitive topic for many. There are wellness indexes available that allow you to gather such feedback. It covers a variety of health-related topics that span the physical, the mental, work and social.  

Physical and mental health are very individualistic. As such, they are so important to capture because they vary so much from person to person. 

Work health is an important dimension to capture because it constitutes such a big part of someone’s life. A 40-hour workweek is 23% of the total amount of hours in a week, and people end up thinking about work outside of work hours as well, which adds up. 

Social health is another very important dimension to capture because it takes all the interactions into account, which can play a big part in one’s overall health. Community interactions, one-to-one interactions, team interactions can all happen inside and outside the organization.  

Once you have the data, you can identify opportunities and gaps which can be addressed with new components in your wellness program or by fine-tuning existing components. Perhaps an employee’s benefit plan needs to be extended, or a completely new initiative could be introduced to the program to address a particular issue. 

Not all data need to be quantitative. You can use natural language processing to make sense of the textual feedback employees provide. It is helpful to obtain insight into the real sentiment of employees. 

You can also layer data from health & wellness surveys with information from other surveys such as engagement, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), etc to further investigate. Health is one of those constructs that can be caused by a multitude of factors. That’s why it’s important to slice and dice the data to discover any trends.  

When it comes to something as crucial as health, it’s not recommended that a wellness program be picked off the shelf. There are important considerations that are contextual to the organization. This is why you begin by surveying! You want to find out how much your employees are willing to do regarding their health, so you can enable them with what they need. 

Health & wellness pulse surveys are a thing. Rather than making it into a once-a-year process, it can be turned into a live process where data is collected and monitored in real-time. But without data collection, you don’t have a process to begin with. So by all means, regardless of how often you collect, or how much you collect, do start collecting health & wellness data.

What to do Next? Taking Action.

Your health & wellness scores from the index should reveal where you are currently. If you want to improve, you will have to understand employee’s opinions about the size and scope of a corporate wellness program. 

There are various components of a workplace wellness program. A program can consist of just one of these initiatives, or every single one of them!  

We’ve arranged them from most playful to more serious, to demonstrate the extent to which wellness programs can develop into.

Data Wellness Blog - Scale of activities

You will notice that the order does not discriminate based on physical or mental health. Rather it goes from activities, tools, or promotions that can be mere suggestions to those that require more finance or resemble more like company-wide policies. There is tremendous variety in a wellness program.  

By understanding the attitudes and behaviors of all involved, you can pick and choose based on what you think will be a good fit. You can substantiate your choices with additional diagnostics via Active Listening follow-up surveys. 

Lowering stress and depression and improving life satisfaction have all significant correlations with healthy behaviors such as an increase in exercise and consumption of fruits and vegetables. It is important to sustain such healthy behaviors however to reap the benefits.  

Wellness programs have been proven to change behaviors in employees for 12-24 months. It’s thus important to survey employees regularly to determine the optimum mix of the wellbeing initiatives. Even if it boils down to the removal of negative habits, being more active and eating better, there is art involved to extract those behaviors by offering the right program. 

Use Data As A Tool

By now, you should be familiar with how the wellness data loop works. Data fuels understanding. That is, understanding preferences and participation.  

Knowing what the people want and would be willing to participate in is a common hurdle. Think back to the long list of wellness initiatives. 

Understanding prompts action. Results of those actions prompt more data collection, which repeats the cycle.  

Thus, data is primarily used for assessing the current situation and taking the right steps towards health and wellness improvements. 

But the role of data is not limited to acquiring workforce intelligence. It can be used to drive particular actions as well. It’s possible to leverage data to increase engagement. 

Participation in wellness programs is crucial.  It’s the bridge between action and results. Just over half of the employees say they know how to engage with health and wellness programs. Hence, it’s an important goal to strive for. 

It’s possible to nudge participation via engagement surveys. One of the markers or questions in your engagement survey could be employee’s participation in the various wellness initiatives.   It’s also possible to improve participation by getting a grip on what communication channels employees prefer, be it via technology or via middle managers. 

61% of employees say that they have made healthier lifestyle choices because of their organizations’ wellness program. Often, employees do better when they know that the wellness efforts are genuine and backed by company leadership.  

When senior managers show commitment to the program as well, nearly three-fourths of employees report developing healthier lifestyles, compared to just 11% who do not have that backing. 

Sometimes, all the employees require is a gentle push. Rather than just studying the program and its participants, the administrators can self-reflect on what they are doing to increase participation.

Beyond the Collection-Analysis-Action Loop 

The process of data collection, gaining insight and taking action cannot be stressed enough. It is this perennial loop that forms the basis of your data strategy. You can always maintain a pulse on the changing participation rates and preferences among employees. The data will best determine your next steps. 

There are other goal-worthy objectives that go beyond the usual loop of data collection, analysis and action. It falls very much in the realm of strategic workforce planning, where you are faced with opportunities and threats that are both internal and external. 

We cover some of the main ones below.

Data to improve Wellness- women with fruit

Structural Problems Brought About by Lack of Physical and Mental Health

Sometimes, creating an awesome company culture centered around health & wellbeing and boosting participation rates are still not good enough to eradicate some structural problems that may be in the employee population of your organization. 

Data on healthcare claims expenses help to create programs to address the healthcare needs of the employee population. By looking at aggregated personal health profiles or health risk assessment data, it’s possible to identify the health conditions which are most prevalent, or which need the most work. You may only achieve the greatest health impact for your organization, should you choose to tackle these problems. 

Partnerships with health insurance providers may be an option. The healthcare system is always working towards a more value-based system. It is possible for employers to convert those employees classified as high-risk status to low-risk status by equipping them with activity and physiological data trackers and subsidizing regular wellness check-ins with their doctors.  

Another big structural issue could be the employee’s financial needs. If the compensation packages are not good enough for some, perhaps what is required is Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). They have been proven to reduce stress. Also, simple things like providing wisdom on budgeting and retirement are invaluable help as well. 

$2000 to $3500 was saved per employee because of a reduction in both presenteeism and absenteeism, because of EAP. You do not want people to be so financially stressed out that they come to work regardless of being contagious. You also do not want them to be so disengaged because of stress that they stop showing up to work. 

The whole idea is for your employees to grow alongside you. Big data is very helpful in such scenarios because it can detect early warning signs. You do not want physical and mental health to exacerbate beyond a certain point before you step in to help. This is not only risky from a productivity point of view but is more expensive to fix if it’s at all possible to fix. 

With something as important as health, it can have multiple effects which should be accounted for when deciding on the budget. There is a 6 percentage point difference in voluntary attrition between those organizations that have an effective wellness program vs those that do not. So sometimes, data is not collected, analyzed and acted upon for running a wellness program, but to particularly address an existing or impending problem. 

Personalization 

Big data does not only refer to the volume of information collected but the variety as well. As so many different information areas can be gathered from a single employee, it’s possible to craft a work experience for them that is optimized for well-being. 

Greater personalization is not only more accurate in recommending the right regimen for improving health, but it can encourage greater participation in the program as well. It plays to the advisory aspect of health & wellness. 

Rather than being a one size fits all, it shows greater empathy for the life circumstances of the employee. Those organizations whose employees received targeted information on how to improve their health saw a 13% decrease in healthcare costs.  

On an individual level, it’s possible to review benefits, incentives and goals to see if the desired objectives are being met. If not, it’s possible to tweak the initiative mix in the program or reassess goals. 

There is a litany of compliance requirements that safeguard the employee’s rights such as ADA, GINA, HIPAA, PPACA. Respectively: they ensure that all employees have equal access to such programs, that the programs are reasonably designed to promote health or prevent diseases, that they protect individually identifiable health information, and that employees have the ability to qualify for any health rewards by other means. 

These laws make personalization a tough feat. But if prior consent is gathered, and the employee understands the voluntary nature of these initiatives, a personalized healthcare program might very well be designed for them. 

Looking Outside

Running a corporate wellness program is not just understanding the attitudes and behaviors of current employees, but the marketplace as a whole. New employees will invariably join who will have their own ideas and perspectives. It is always interesting to see how the organization’s culture interfaces with societal culture. 

It’s important to keep up with the trends or risks being compared to competitors who do. Health Fairs and Free Health Food/Stocked Kitchen were featured at the top of categories where employers were investing less. Compare that to mental health and stress management initiatives which saw an uptick in investment.  

Since you want the best health outcomes for your employees, it is wise to look at outside industry data to see what works vs what does not. Fitness programs, lifestyle change programs and weight loss intervention have 21%, 19% and 11 % adoption respectively.  

Depending on the size of your organization, it is important to understand expectations. One-third of all large corporations now offer an on-site clinic. But will the majority of employees be housed in an office at all going forward?  In light of COVID-19, the number of employers who offer virtual care options to their employees shot up to 43% from 29% in just one year.  

87% of employees look at a corporate wellness program as a differentiator when choosing an employer. This should come as no surprise. But it is more serious when such preferences affect one’s chances of recruitment in a competitive labor market.  

So it’s wise to look at external data, regarding where the marketplace is going when it comes to health and wellness. You may have a great company culture, but a static culture loses its shine over time.

In Conclusion

We must emphasize the fact that big data and AI are disruptors and will affect every industry. Only 42% of organizations say that they are highly effective in leveraging data to manage their wellness programs.  

Reading wellness industry trend reports could provide a general lay of the land on where things are going. It is considered to be secondary data. Ideally, you should also be involved in collecting primary data, that is, doing your own research on the current state of your program and the current health of your employees.  

By measuring, understanding and taking action, you will be able to design and operate an efficient wellness program that works for all. By staying on top of internal data, you will be in a  position to predict and prevent negative outcomes while obtaining good scores on employee health and wellness indicators. By considering external data as well, you will develop the strategic foresight to run a wellness program that both serves your employees and acts as a differentiator in the marketplace. 

REFERENCES 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873731/#:~:text=A%20meta%2Danalysis%20of%20the,%241%20spent%20(Baicker%202010). 

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/do-employee-wellness-programs-actually-work-2019081317503 

https://hbr.org/2019/08/what-wellness-programs-dont-do-for-workers 

https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/p0422-workplaces-offer-wellness.html 

http://files.kff.org/attachment/Report-Employer-Health-Benefits-Annual-Survey-2018 

https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/Pages/2014-shrm-strategic-use-of-benefits-wellness-initiatives.aspx 

https://worktango.com/health-and-wellness/  

https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_briefs/RB9700/RB9744/RAND_RB9744.pdf 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2013/06/11/challenge-2013-linking-employee-wellness-morale-and-the-bottom-line/?sh=35f81da25ca2 

https://worktango.com/employee-promise/ 

https://hbr.org/2010/12/whats-the-hard-return-on-employee-wellness-programs 

https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/eap-counseling-significantly-improves-employee-wellbeing-ability-to-concentrate-and-productivity-301132345.html 

https://www.healthadvocate.com/site/article/harnessing-the-power-of-data-analytics-to-maximize-employee-benefits 

https://technologyadvice.com/wellness-programs/ 

https://www.hrtechnologist.com/articles/workplace-wellness/how-healthcare-data-will-help-transform-hrs-mission-in-2019/ 

https://www.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/tools-and-samples/how-to-guides/Pages/howtoestablishanddesignawellnessprogram.aspx 

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/13/how-workplace-benefits-might-reflect-the-new-reality-of-covid-19.html 

https://www.aflac.com/docs/awr/pdf/2016-articles/art.trends_2017.ic.pdf 

https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2016/06/workplace-well-being 

https://www.wellsteps.com/images/stories/manuscripts/WC_two_year_results.pdf 

https://cdn-aem.optum.com/content/dam/optum3/optum/en/resources/white-papers/wellness-in-workplace-whitepaper-final.pdf 

https://resources.wellable.co/2021-employee-wellness-industry-trends-report 

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