Managing chronic illness represents the greatest opportunity to increase the effectiveness of employee wellness programs

As employers look to make further inroads into improving the health and wellness of their workforce, broadening the scope of employee wellness programs beyond fitness and nutrition to include risk factor and disease management represents the greatest opportunity to increase their effectiveness.

Employee wellness programs can benefit employees at all levels of health. For healthy employees, wellness programs can improve energy levels, alertness, and injury avoidance, and offer tools that help employees make the best decisions about their health care.

There is another group that have a more complex health care profile, those who are experiencing chronic health challenges. Hypertension, arthritis, diabetes, and depression were the most frequently reported chronic conditions among employees in a 2015 National Institutes of Health study. Managing these diseases permeates all aspects of people’s lives. Given the time people spend at work, and the physical demands of many jobs, their effects are magnified at the workplace.

This group is the one that – for reasons that may include privacy concerns, skepticism, and a perception that wellness programs are solely fitness-based – is the most difficult to engage in employee wellness programs.

A RAND study of 600,000 employees at seven large employers showed that only 13 percent of those who participated in employee wellness programs did so to help them manage diseases.

How Employee Wellness Programs Can Differentiate Themselves and Achieve Even Greater Success

Increasing participation among this group represents the biggest opportunity to affect a meaningful reduction in health care claims and costs and increase workforce productivity.

“Enrolling the chronically ill in disease-management programs that ensure they get appropriate care has the most potential to reduce insurance premiums. For example, a program that preempts 25 unnecessary emergency department visits can easily save $50,000, while preventing four inpatient stays can save at least $100,000. Savings like these are not unrealistic for a 2,000-employee company.”

– Harvard Business Review

The American workforce is aging, which portends a rise in chronic disease sufferers in the workforce. The NIH reports that more than three quarters of people over 75 have more than one chronic illness, and there will be an increasing number of people aged 64-74 and 75 and older in the workforce.

With these trendlines, employers can expect more chronically ill employees.

What can employers do?

  • Create a supportive environment – To reach employees managing chronic diseases, the employees have to feel comfortable sharing details about their conditions. They need assurances of confidentiality and no fear of repercussions. When employees feel understood and supported, they will be more likely to consider the offerings of an employee wellness program.
  • Share disease-management tools – Health care tech companies continue to innovate accessible, useful digital tools to manage health conditions. Livongo, for example, is an internet-connected blood sugar meter for diabetics. For heart disease, Cardiio is a smartphone app that can measure heart rate and cardiovascular fitness.
  • Make reasonable accommodations – Can you alter a chronic disease sufferers’ schedule or job description or change their office setup to improve their experience? These efforts can increase productivity and improve employer-employee relationships.

Creating a trusting, accommodating environment for chronic disease sufferers brings them into the fold of a company’s efforts to optimize workforce health. The benefits of disease management accrue faster than managing wellness, because those with chronic illness have more acute needs from the health care system. Minimizing those needs through active disease management has real financial benefits for the company, the employee, and the health care system.

Let us know what you think.

Thank you,

Max Kahn