Optimizing wellness programs with a data-driven approach.

Employers provide wellness programs as an investment in their workforce. And a happy, healthy workforce can be their most valuable asset.

As the pandemic continues and affects employees in various ways, employers are looking for ways to address their workforce’s needs while keeping their wellness program costs sustainable. Leveraging data to gain a clearer picture of employers’ benefits spend, as well as employees’ evolving needs, can be a part of the solution.

A properly designed, data-driven wellness strategy can help employers to personalize their offerings and allocate resources more efficiently. This can improve their wellness programs overall, lead to higher participation and help drive better health outcomes.

Employee wellness matters.

When companies invest in their employees’ wellness, they also invest in increasing their organization’s overall performance.

Statistics demonstrate that Canadian employees with two or more lifestyle risk factors (such as being sedentary, overweight, smoking, or with high alcohol intake) are absent fifty per cent more often than those without these risk factors and they cost their employers 2-3 times more in health benefit costs. According to the Conference Board of Canada, each year, employee absenteeism equates to billions of dollars in direct lost revenue to Canadian employers.

Mental health related illnesses have also become a costly challenge for employers; the Mental Health Commission of Canada reported that about thirty per cent of short and long-term disability claims in Canada are attributed to mental health problems and illnesses. It also notes that since 2011, mental health problems and illnesses among working adults in Canada cost employers more than $6 billion in lost productivity from absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover. With the current pandemic exacerbating mental health problems, statistics are already showing that mental health related illnesses continue to significantly impact Canadians.

As the focus on employee wellness intensifies, employers are multiplying efforts to provide improved wellness initiatives. The 2020 Workplace Benefits Awards recognized the Canadian employers who go the extra mile to focus on the mental health and wellness of their workforce. Companies were recognized for their well-rounded holistic approaches that helped foster a culture of wellness in the workplace. Other award winners were recognized for mental-health strategies that focus on total employee well-being and start with the organization’s leaders who actively promote positive behaviours related to mental health. And a completely new category this year recognized the efforts of companies to adapt their benefits to the pandemic’s context; helping their employees navigate these difficult times.

The benefits of “knowing your numbers”.

Designing and managing a great wellness program first requires employers and plan sponsors to understand the factors and health risks that impact employees’ personal lives and productivity at work. And research is increasingly indicating that “knowing your numbers” may lead to an improvement in health risks in employees.

“It helps the employer to define the focus and goals of the wellness program ahead of the program inception,” says Tia Milosevic, Senior Product Manager, Data Enablement at TELUS Health. “A data-driven approach helps the employer to think about the types of data that needs to be collected and tracked to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and how these metrics can help adjust it over time.”

When using data to help design and monitor a wellness program, employees tend to get outreach and initiatives that are more adequately tailored to their health status and wellness objectives.

But even with the sustained attention given to workplace wellness, only a minority of companies use data to evaluate and measure their wellness programs’ impacts on both their employees’ health and their organizations’ productivity.

In fact, only twenty-two percent of plan sponsors report regularly receiving claims analyses that help identify the main disease states in their workforce according to the 2020 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey. The survey also found that employers with 500 or more employees are somewhat more likely to get this information regularly (27%) and, among the thirty-one per cent who do not get this data at all, more than half (58%) would like to.

“There is more and more interest to have access to data in order to support the benefits of introducing and sustaining a wellness program,” notes Milosevic. “It is a big initial investment that an employer has to make up front and often, but the benefits of a program are not as evident without data.”

Some employers, however, are increasingly looking at data to help optimize their workplace wellness programs. The health and wellness team at Magna International Inc. targeted wellness initiatives through four steps: data analytics, research and design, implementation and assessment. The Canadian automobile parts manufacturer’s team examines claims data, industry trends and employee feedback, then uses this information to adapt their programs, improve employee engagement and have a greater impact on their workers’ health. As a result, employees who participated in Magna’s wellness program, on average, showed better overall health results and decreased absenteeism.

Consistent use of data can drive better health outcomes.

A wellness program can become more data-driven and provide an accurate picture of workforce wellness by collecting and analysing information from sources such as claims and demographic  data, employee feedback, biometric screening tests, and health risk assessment questionnaires. This can help provide an accurate picture of workforce wellness and pinpoint the areas where companies should allocate more or less resources – whether it be for stress relief, lifestyle habits such as smoking cessation, mental well-being, or even financial health. Program participation rates, clinical outcomes, and healthcare utilization (including adherence measures) can also help to guide the design of wellness benefits and initiatives.

If used consistently and regularly, this insight can help the employer optimize their wellness program through more customized offerings and targeted resources. It can allow employers to better plan for future program initiatives and continue to improve employee health and well-being. In the long run, this customization can lead to improved health outcomes, better employee engagement, and result in reduced losses due to employee absenteeism.

Of course, employee privacy is a key concern whenever data collection is addressed. It is important to note that employers should review privacy regulations in place before gathering and using data related to employee health. Employers and providers must comply with Canada’s privacy and healthcare regulations in order to ensure that employee health information collected is kept separate and secure.

But even with reasonable data restrictions, employers can still gain a valuable understanding of their employees’ physical, mental, and financial needs so as to help carve-out an effective and holistic wellness program.

Taking wellness programs to the next level.

A well-strategized data-driven wellness program can take organizations to the next level and help employers build a culture of wellness in the workplace. What starts as a data-driven strategy to optimize a company’s benefits plan can evolve into sustainable changes within the organization.

Milosevic advises that when employers are at the inception stage of a wellness program, they need to think about quantifiable outcome measures that they’d like to track over the extent of the program. “Knowing what they want to use as key performance indicators will help them design the wellness programs to be able to reliably measure and achieve their goals. The data piece becomes a component of design of the wellness program and not an afterthought.”

She points out that “the set of key performance indicators that an organization decides to evaluate their wellness program on really depends on the culture, priority and area of improvement or focus that the particular organization values.”

When measuring program success, along with calculating the return on investment (ROI) of a wellness program, an innovative approach consists of calculating a wellness programs’ VOI – the value on investment.

Assessing the total value on investment includes factors such as employee engagement, recruitment, absenteeism, overall financial sustainability, and growth of the organization. In addition to increasing participation rates, three factors – a greater level of wellness communication, a willingness to seek worker input and an effort to include families – are recurring themes across organizations with positive ROI and VOI as well as great workplace cultures.

A positive VOI for a wellness program is the result of an effective workplace wellness culture and of a workforce that is happier and more productive. And although this can’t always be measured with dollar amounts, it will likely be reflected in the organization’s performance.

1 The Business Case for a Healthy Workplace, Health and Safety Ontario, https://www.wsps.ca/WSPS/media/Site/Resources/Downloads/BusinessCaseHW_Final.pdf?ext=.pdf
2 Magna’s data-driven wellness strategy proving focus on analytics reduces costs, Benefits Canada, Nov.9 2020, https://www.benefitscanada.com/news/magnas-data-driven-strategy-proving-focus-on-employee-health-reduces-costs-152198
3 Ibid
4 Workplace Wellness Trends, International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, https://www.ifebp.org/pdf/Wellness-trends-preview-19.pdf#search=VOI
5 International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, https://www.ifebp.org/aboutus/pressroom/releases/Pages/Employers-Using-VOI-to-Measure-Wellness-Program-Success.aspx

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