While it may not sound appealing in January, employees at MTM Inc.'s Lake St. Louis office are encouraged to get outside and stretch their legs during team-building bike rides to lunch or a meeting on the move.
The Chesterfield-based company’s bike-sharing program, provided through Zagster, is just one of MTM’s corporate wellness initiatives, which center around an app that allows employees to earn points for different activities. Logging three miles a day biking is worth four points.
MTM, a medical and transportation management company, also runs team challenges complete with leaderboards that increase accountability, according to Chris Mileski, director of corporate wellness.
“It’s really easy to let yourself down. You only have to live with yourself,” he said. “But if you’re letting down a coworker or team of coworkers, I think that’s a much more powerful motivational tool to keep you engaged and doing what you need to do to complete certain challenges.”
And mastering challenges to earn points gives employees more than bragging rights. If they meet periodic point totals set by MTM’s wellness program, they earn significant discounts on their insurance premiums.
By offering such incentives, MTM and other companies that invest in workplace wellness programs hope to see medical claims and absenteeism decline for a healthier, more motivated pool of employees.
Return on investment?
But the return on investment for corporate wellness initiatives has historically been hard to measure because it’s difficult to match health data with productivity measures, according to Lamar Pierce, professor of organization and strategy at Washington University’s Olin Business School. Many studies also rely on often-inaccurate self-reported survey data to get a pulse on productivity and how workplace wellness programs might affect it.
Pierce and two other researchers were able collect some of those elusive ROI measures in a study that paired health data and productivity statistics for 111 employees at five commercial laundry facilities operated by CLEAN, an industrial laundry company based in St. Louis. The company was a good fit for the research, in part, because it operated a corporate wellness program in all but one of the five facilities, which was excluded because it offered a different insurance plan. Employees there served as the study’s quasi-control group.
At the four participating plants, full-time employees who enrolled in the workplace wellness program received free annual biometric screenings. They then received personalized health information detailing their current health status and recommendations for improvement. Workers also got discounts on their insurance premiums for participating in the program.
Researchers used the individuals’ productivity data, results from the health screenings and survey data from employees on their lifestyle choices to estimate the wellness program’s impact on productivity. They found workers who participated in the program and showed health improvements boosted their productivity by about 10 percent during the following year, with study data suggesting better diet and exercise habits contributed to those results.
Although the sample size isn’t large, the data suggests effective workplace wellness programs can do much more than decrease claims costs and absenteeism.
“People who are healthier simply work better. Their minds think better. Their bodies perform better. They’re less likely to get sick. There are a whole number of these payoffs that come with it,” Pierce said.
Finding the right balance
But when Pierce speaks to executives, he cautions them against an overly aggressive approach since health is a highly personal matter for most. It’s also critical for employees to know health data won’t be used against them in personnel decisions.
CLEAN used a third-party company to manage health data and its executive team never had access to individual employees’ screening results. Over time, they’ve increased employees’ trust in the wellness program, said Brian Reitz, vice president of human resources at CLEAN.
“Six years ago when we started the program, there was a lot of apprehension as if we were trying to gather information on employees or drug test them,” Reitz said. “Those thoughts have all gone away and we’ve had some really great success stories of employees hearing negative blood test results and making some very drastic changes in their lives.”
CLEAN’s program is high-touch without being heavy handed, Reitz said.
For instance, the health screenings are done on site. Once results are in, professionals come back to CLEAN plants to explain individuals’ results and offer specific strategies to improve their health. Workers aren’t forced to participate in the program, but those who do receive a 22 percent discount in their insurance premium. Reitz said 93 to 95 percent of eligible employees have opted in and really seem to appreciate the individualized attention and advice.
“A lot of wellness providers want to do everything electronically and don’t get that human touch,” Reitz said. “This does not work for our group so I suggest figuring out what level of human interaction they need and design a program around that.”
The right fit for MTM
With call centers spread over 30 different states, an app-based incentive program proved to be the better fit for MTM. It also uses health analytics software that helps Mileski and others analyze claims data 30 to 45 days after it’s been processed. Rather than providing information on specific employees, the data helps identify trends he and his staff can address immediately.
For example, after seeing an uptick in claims related to back and neck pain, Mileski and a colleague went to ergonomics school and shared what they gleaned in lunch and learn meetings. They also ordered more sit-stand desks for employees.
MTM’s programs aren’t all electronic, however. The company also offers health perks including on-site gyms, a medically supervised weight loss program and an eight-week smoking cessation course that it holds three times a year.
Mileski said the time and money invested in these efforts show MTM employees that executives care about their health.
And that is one of the most important goals of any workplace wellness program, according to Pierce at Washington University.
“You can give people financial incentives. You can monitor them. But, in the end, a huge component of their productivity is just whether or not they want to be productive,” Pierce said. “And, when you treat people with respect, they want to be more productive — not everybody, but enough people that it’s evident on average.”