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Eight Tips for Wellness Program Success

Mindy McGrath, April 22, 2009

The United States is drowning in healthcare costs, which are projected to top a whopping $4 trillion by 2015. President Barack Obama's healthcare reform plan includes funding for workplace wellness programs.

When he signed the stimulus package, Obama said, "Wellness initiatives will keep millions of Americans from setting foot in the doctor's office for purely preventable diseases."

But most companies have reported low and stagnant participation rates in workplace wellness programs. With so much riding on prevention to help cure America's healthcare system, how can wellness programs fulfill the promise of lowering healthcare costs?

Here are eight tips to ensure a successful wellness program:

  1. Assess—Conduct research to understand your participants: What motivates them, both from a rewards and recognition perspective? How do they want to be communicated with? What are the current realities of your health and productivity program?
  2. Design—Develop a program that is both fair and fun, taking into consideration your unique member population as well as which goals are realistically achievable and measurable along the way.
  3. Manage—Ensure one person or partner is managing all aspects of the program. Make sure the wellness movement starts at the top. Executive management needs to embrace wellness as a business imperative, not a "nice to have," and they need to live up to that mission.
  4. Reward—Develop a continuous rewards and incentives program with personally meaningful, memorable, and motivating rewards. Many organizations are using incentives as a one-time "carrot," or a simple "do this, get that" approach. However, because the required behavior changes are new, challenging, and difficult to sustain, programs must include incentives and rewards throughout the year in order to drive long-term program engagement in healthy behaviors.
  5. Communicate—Share ongoing reminders, feedback, and recognition using multiple media and taking into account member preferences. This is the single biggest reason wellness programs fail. There is not enough budget or emphasis given to the importance of communication either in content or frequency. Effective communication continues to reinforce attention on the wellness movement and it answers five key questions for employees:
    • What do you want them to do?
    • Why do you want them to do it?
    • How do you want them to do it?
    • What's in it for them?
    • How are they doing?
  6. Segment—Know the demographics of your workforce. Demographics are a key data point that allow you to disseminate the appropriate communications and rewards. In addition, we suggest going a step further to take the pulse of your population and its readiness for change. Understand what they expect and prefer, as well as the types of tools, communications, and rewards that may actually engage them to adopt healthier behaviors.
  7. Measure—Help members understand how they are doing individually and track the success of the overall program. This will help both members and program managers make the necessary tweaks to stay on track.
  8. Spend—Spend money to save money on healthcare costs. Too often organizations try to cast too broad of a net, spreading their investment dollars too thin. The result: a disjointed and haphazard program with very little strength to drive change. Make the most of your investment dollars and focus them on a couple of objectives with the idea that you can always phase in more services and interventions after the wellness movement gains momentum.

Creating a wellness movement in an organization takes time, resources, and investment. The last thing that you want is for it to fail. Taking some of these tips to heart may help in mitigating the risk of failure.


Mindy McGrath is vice president of strategy for Maritz's healthcare sector. She has more than 15 years of experience within the healthcare industry, including the pharmaceutical and health plan markets. She has served in multiple roles for companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Medimedia. She also authors the healthcare blog, Rewarding Health.
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