As more workers battle diabetes, cancer, heart disease, mentalillness and other health conditions, employers are finding ways tohelp them reduce health care costs and focus on overall workerhealth and well-being, according to a new report.

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The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans' Workplace Wellness 2017 Survey Report surveyed 530 U.S. andCanadian organizations, and found that diabetes is the number onecondition impacting benefit plan health costs for 41 percent of therespondents.

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The other top conditions impacting costs are cancer (33percent); arthritis/back/musculoskeletal (32 percent); obesity (29percent); heart disease (27 percent); hypertension/high bloodpressure (26 percent); depression/mental illness (20 percent); highcholesterol (11 percent); smoking (9 percent); and high-riskpregnancy (4 percent).

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To combat these conditions, survey respondents say they offer awide variety of screening and treatment initiatives. Three in four(76.8 percent) offer free or discounted flu shots, 65.7 percentinstitute a smoke-free worksite policy, followed by chiropracticservices coverage (62.3 percent), health screenings such as bloodpressure and cholesterol checks(58.7 percent), health riskassessments/appraisals (56.2 percent) and smoking-cessationprograms (55.7 percent), including counseling, medications andtreatments such as nicotine patches. Respondents also commonlyoffer disease management programs (48.1 percent) and casemanagement (39.6 percent), a patient care model focusing oncoordinating medical services for individuals.

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Respondents also offer a number of fitness and nutritioninitiatives. The most common are wellness competitions such aswalking/fitness challenges (51.3 percent), healthy food choices (44percent) and health coaching (42.6 percent). More than 2 in 5 (42.3percent) provide standing/walking workstations for workers,followed by on-site or subsidized weight loss/management programs(38.3 percent), activity/exercise breaks that are encouraged duringwork time (36.8 percent), organized group run/walk events (36.6percent) and on-site fitness equipment/centers (36percent).

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In regard to mental and behavioral health initiatives,respondents commonly offer employee assistance programs (85percent), mental health coverage (63 percent) and substanceabuse benefits/coverage (54 percent).

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“In recent years, research has shown that workplace wellnessefforts have broadened in scope,” the authors write. “Employers arefocusing less on health care cost figures and placing a greateremphasis on overall worker health and well-being.”

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Indeed, 75 percent of the survey respondents say they offerwellness initiatives primarily to improve overall workerhealth and well-being, while 25 percent say they aim tocontrol or reduce health-related costs.

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“Despite significant challenges, organizations are looking toincrease the emphasis on a number of wellness-related offerings inthe next two years,” the study says. “Most often, organizations areincreasing the emphasis on wellness communication (55.8 percent),financial education (46.6 percent), health literacy education (44.2percent), mental health/stress-related offerings (38.9percent) and the use of wellness incentives (38.7percent).”

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Organizations use a variety of different methods and factors tocalculate their ROI, including the use of HRA/screeningcondition/risk trends (29 percent), factoring program expenses intotheir calculations (29 percent) and using total health plan costtrend lines (21 percent). Almost one-half (46 percent) track healthcare costs in relation to their efforts, followed by health riskassessment data (42 percent), health screening data (42 percent)and engagement/satisfaction/culture survey data (30percent).

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“In theory, initiatives with high levels of worker engagementwill produce cost savings for employers and improve the health andwell-being of workers,” the study says. “Concerns remain as towhether organizations and workers are actually realizing thesebenefits. Wellness benefits can be difficult to measure becauseimprovements in worker health, morale, productivity, absenteeismand turnover can be influenced by a combination offactors.”

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Among those with wellness initiatives, about 1 in 4 (26.7percent) analyzes the return on investment of their wellnessinitiatives. Measurements are most often conducted by wellnessvendors, providers or consultants (12.1 percent) or internalstaff (10.0 percent).

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“Most organizations with knowledge of their ROI have foundbetween a $1 and $4 return per $1 spent,” the authors write. “Veryfew have discovered a negative wellness ROI. The average wellnessROI among all organizations with knowledge of their ROI was $2.58per $1 spent.”

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Respondents who tracked the ROI of their wellness initiativeswere asked to rate the success of their efforts. More than 9 in 10(92.4 percent) stated that their efforts were either verysuccessful or somewhat successful.

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Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in Running Springs, Calif. She has more than three decades of journalism experience, with particular expertise in employee benefits and other human resource topics.