Posted by Alicia Waltenberger.
Recently, my husband and I became sole proprietors of the metal fabrication and pattern company that we’ve been involved in for the last 15 years, and that his family started 40 years ago. Before we wholly owned the business, it was easy to disconnect from it when we left at night. Now, the business consumes us 24/7. There’s payroll to worry about, unemployment insurance, and of course, health benefits for our 80 or so full-time employees.
Healthcare costs seem to creep up every year—and annual salary raises don’t always manage to keep up. In fact, one of the reasons that workers have been seeing smaller raises in recent years is that a larger share of their total compensation has been going towards healthcare benefits.2 Why is healthcare so expensive? Well, an aging workforce is more costly to insure—but that’s only part of the story.
An ounce of prevention
The U.S. spends twice as much on healthcare per capita compared to other industrialized nations yet is not the healthiest nation, by far.1 What this suggests is that we are spending a lot on treating largely preventable conditions, such as type 2 diabetes. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” goes the old saying, as relevant today as ever. One way to bring down the cost of healthcare, it seems, is to spend a little more on health promotion and prevention.
During my time as an employee, I’ve been well aware that a large slice of my paycheck goes toward health insurance. It always seemed like a lot of money; I never gave much thought to my employer’s share of the cost.
If you opt out of healthcare benefits, for example, because your partner or parent has a family healthcare plan that already covers you, you are actually saving your employer thousands of dollars per year. Could you persuade them to pass some of those savings onto you in the form of a raise? Perhaps. For the millions of us who rely on workplace healthcare plans, is there anything we can do directly to drive down costs?
As a small business, we engage with our staff personally, to try and find adequate coverage for a reasonable cost. In the past, we only needed to worry about our own health, but now as business owners, my husband and I have been thinking a lot about health promotion and prevention—specifically, how wellness programs can be a win-win for employers and employees alike.
Out with the candy, in with the fruit?
Is your workplace filled with candy jars, vending machines and Pizza Fridays? While these common perks may boost short-term morale, loyalty and blood sugar levels, they may also cause some employees to visit the doctor more frequently—which can end up costing everyone in the long term, in the form of higher group healthcare premiums.
Here are some inexpensive ways to promote healthy living in the workplace:
- Devote a bigger portion of your “treats” budget to healthy, yet tasty snacks like granola bars. Order chicken salad along with pizza (you might be surprised at how many people go for the healthy option. If there’s only pizza, otherwise-salad-loving employees will eat it simply because it’s free!
- Find out if any of your employees are certified yoga or meditation instructors, and incentivize them to teach classes during lunchtime.
- Set up FitBit challenges. If you haven’t heard of it already, FitBit is a phone app that tracks the number of steps you take, kind of like a pedometer. The employee who covers the most ground every week gets a small prize.
- Offer personal health-risk assessments, to help your employees identify risk factors. These can be done online and in the form of a questionnaire—your insurance company may be able to provide them for a small fee.
Implementing at least one of these ideas is a great first step, but while you can take a horse to the water cooler, you can’t make it drink. There’s another kind of wellness program that’s been found to significantly lower claims costs.3
The Harvard Business Review reports that enrolling chronically ill or “at risk” employees (who account for the lion’s share of a company’s claims expense), in disease-management and/or prevention programs that promote appropriate care, helps to reduce insurance premiums for everyone3:
“The real question is not whether wellness programs deliver returns. Rather, it’s what type of wellness program can reduce claims and thereby lower insurance premiums. The answer is not lifestyle programs; it’s programs that prevent at-risk employees from becoming ill and help chronically ill employees stabilize their conditions.”
But in order for wellness programs to be effective, “employees must trust the program and the employer’s motives.” This involves showing employees the true cost of healthcare borne by the employer, and overall transparency. Granted, this is a little easier in a small business like ours, where everyone is on first-name terms with the CEO.
Ultimately, workplace wellness can increase employee engagement and productivity, not to mention employee satisfaction and morale.3
And in small companies, workplace wellness initiatives can significantly reduce the dollar amount we all end up paying. Even if you can’t reverse the rising tide of healthcare premiums on a company level, you can try to reduce the amount you are likely to pay individually out of pocket, over the long term. Starting a conversation with HR about the win-win logic of wellness programs is an excellent start.