While the vast majority of companies in the United States are now offering wellness programs, most would admit their program is far from perfect. Figuring out how to squeeze the highest impact out of what seems like an ever-shrinking budget is one of the biggest struggles a benefit administrator will run into when putting together a wellness program. While most behavior change or “intervention” programs available in the wellness world are focused on a single issue, we may have found the one focus that can impact multiple health risks and make your dollar go the furthest.
Many wellness program decisions are made similarly to how we shop for consumer goods. Marketing and “buzz words” go a long way. Think about the difference in exposure you see between breast cancer and diabetes. During breast cancer awareness month, NFL football players wore pink, there were public service announcements promoting breast cancer awareness and even the eggs in my refrigerator had a pink ribbon stamped on them. I can’t say any of those things about diabetes, but diabetes related deaths outnumber breast cancer every year by nearly five times. It’s all about perception and visibility.
This is the reason that, anecdotally, smoking cessation is the number one behavior change program that I am asked for on a day-to-day basis. Smoking is something you see with your own eyes and you know is a major driver of medical cost increases and productivity loss in an organization. I won’t argue that point. But I will point out that while smoking is the most “marketed” of negative behaviors, it may not be the best use of your limited resources.
We live in a world of one-to-one relational intervention programs. As I touched on, smoking cessation has a direct effect on smoking, but not on obesity, metabolic syndrome or mental health issues. A healthy eating program only impacts your weight. Employee assistance programs target mental health conditions. So what is the intervention that can reach across multiple risk “categories” to help your employees?
While doing research on mental health issues in middle aged women, we stumbled across an interesting connection. What we first discovered was that in a population of women between age 25 and 40, a small incremental increase in the amount of exercise they engaged in per week (measured in days in which you raise your heart rate for 20 minutes) correlated to a drastic reduction in levels of anxiety, depression and stress. In each analysis, the level of these conditions decreased with each increase in number of days that they exercised.
The key was that any amount of exercise was great. Incidence of each condition was lowered by 18 to 59 percent when exercising less than one time per week to one time or more. It appears that these women got the most “bang for their buck” when exercising three times per week, lowering incidence of these conditions 29 to 57 percent.
And this isn’t just an issue of women between 25 and 40 years old. When running the same comparison against all participants in our database, we saw a similar trend. Incidence of each condition was lowered by 22 to 61 percent when habits changed from exercising less than one time per week to one time or more. The only difference that we noticed was that within the group of women 25 to 40 years old, the incidence rate of depression and anxiety was overall 33 percent higher than the population as a whole.
So what could this mean for your wellness program? If you have limited dollars to spend, activity-based programs are a wise choice to earn first priority over other programs that may get more buzz or come to mind first. These programs work not only as an effective maintenance program for healthy employees, and a risk reduction program for participants with high blood pressure, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity, but also strongly impact the reduction of mental health conditions. You’ll be able to provide a multi-faceted approach to cost containment and productivity maximization with one simple program. So get out there and get active.
Joe Miller is managing director for CHC Wellness. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-380-1169.