Employee Well-Being: A Business Imperative–By Jean Hanvik

Employee Well-Being: A Business Imperative–By Jean Hanvik

“Learning about what other organizations are doing and how they are implementing their programs was so helpful! Many of us agreed that, while incentives are important, we need to get the focus back on helping employees see the intrinsic and lasting value of making healthy and sustainable lifestyle choices and changes.”

                                                                       Action Group member

Tools like interactive e-magazines empower employees to explore how health and wellness programs impact them personally

As we began planning for the recent member meeting, Employee Well-being: A Business Imperative, I decided to make note of the deluge of emails I receive each week on the topic. I’m lucky if I can find time to open half of them. Whether it’s articles, sales pitches, or promotions about the most successful employee well-being programs on the planet, we’re riding the crest of an undeniable trend.

But while today 85 percent of employers have implemented wellness programs on behalf of their employees, less than one in five believe their programs are very effective at reducing health care costs, improving performance or productivity, or enhancing employee engagement, attraction and loyalty, according to PwC.

By drawing diverse employers together at the member meeting to discuss this important topic, we learned many fascinating things about what is — and isn’t — working.

One thing is clear: Each organization holds its own vision of what defines a “culture” of well-being. Some set forth modest ambitions, offering one-size-fits-all employee education and dangling premium incentives for those who submit to health risk assessments. Those more committed (or with bigger budgets) roll out personalized training, a broader range of “carrot-and-stick” motivators, modeling tools, and links to vendor tools and websites. As a consequence, an authentic culture of well-being has thus far proven more mirage than oasis for most.


  1. Employees are overwhelmed by well-being challenges. Most are ill-equipped to take on more responsibility. Almost 28% of U.S. workers are obese, 11% of the workforce suffers from depression, 88% are functionally health illiterate, and more than 60% are dissatisfied at work.
  2. Employers are in a unique and influential position to help workers get engaged, educated and empowered to improving their overall well-being.

Summarizing Member Meeting Findings:
Six Steps to Building Strong, Strategic, Successful Well-being Programs



In organizations boasting effective wellness programs, leaders play an active and visible role. A study by HR consulting firm Mercer finds that 66 percent of employers with strong leadership support report a reduction in health risks, compared to just 26 percent of those with little or no management support.

A culture of well-being treats health and wellness matters not as an HR “project,” but as a business imperative, linked to broader organizational goals. Holding vendors accountable for delivering on ROI promises must be part of the strategy, too.

Unsuccessful programs focus on what’s in it for the company. Effective efforts hone in on issues most important to employees like family, security and opportunity. And the more personalization designed to meet individual needs, the better.

“It seems like even smaller and public employers are making strides in offering healthier foods, walking maps, consistent programs for all, etc. But the common challenge seems to be effectively reaching the 20% who are driving 80% of health and benefit costs who can’t or won’t change. It’s always the ‘worried well’ who are already fit and healthy who take advantage of every well-being program, while those who could really use the help have surrendered to unhealthy lifestyles.”
Employer member

Many employers turn to health benefit providers and other vendors for the bulk of their communication materials. Although these resources are often valuable, they may fail to capture the unique values and attributes of the organization. A branded, customized and personalized approach greatly increases the odds employees will pay attention and respond.

A simple Google search reveals in an instant the variability in definitions of employee well-being. Tactics and definitions come and go, but effective well-being efforts are well-defined and take the long view. They recognize employees may be resistant to change, and that support systems need time to evolve and succeed.

Thriving programs use not only formal channels of communication such as newsletters and email blasts, but also informal, interactive, employee-centered channels, including social media. Understanding that health literacy is alarmingly low — only 12 percent of U.S. adults have proficient health literacy — it’s also important to use appropriately simple language, along with an engaging tone and style.

“What’s really important at 3M is our approach to health and well-being. It is tailored to employee needs, integrated, defines key goals and metrics, and includes incentives that encourage employees to take advantage of programs and services that help them. We’re also committed to ‘closing the gaps’ for employees, helping them understand how best to make progress toward their own personal goals.”
Mike Anderson
Global Benefits Director

Fast Facts

  • Chronic disease. Over 117 million American adults suffer from at least one chronic illness, accounting for half of all deaths and costing the U.S. billions annually in direct and indirect costs.
  • Presenteeism and absenteeism. Poor health costs the U.S. economy $576 billion each year. More than a third of that amount, $227 billion, is due to lost productivity from employee absenteeism or presenteeism.
  • Disability and leave of absence. About $117 billion of the $576 billion cited above accounts for wage replacement due to employee absence from workers’ compensation, and short- or long-term disability.
  • Lower engagement. Among employees who are inspired by their company culture to make healthy choices, 80 percent are engaged in their jobs, citing satisfaction with their work, team members, manager and benefits. Conversely, when employees are inspired to be healthy, only 44 percent are engaged in their jobs.
  • Higher turnover. A company is four times more likely to experience a loss in talented workers in the next year if employees are not satisfied with wellness promotion.
  • Lost employee investment. The average company spends nearly $100,000 per year on employee onboarding and about $1,200 per employee per year on training. Those dollars are lost when dissatisfied and disengaged employees quit.
  • Poor employee health literacy: A patient’s health literacy – the ability to understand medical language, actively listen, analyze treatment plans, make daily decisions and ask health providers relevant questions – affects health outcomes and medical adherence. In fact, patients with the lowest personal health care management skill levels and confidence incurred costs averaging up to 21 percent higher than patients with the highest skill levels.
  • Chronic insolvency stress:
    • At 62 percent, medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. (72 percent of those had medical insurance.)
    • About 64 percent of Americans report that money is their number one stressor.
    • On average, financial stress costs businesses $5,000 in lost productivity per employee per year.
    • About two-in-four people (52 percent) have less than $1,000 to pay for out-of-pocket expenses associated with an unexpected illness or accident.
    • Up to two-thirds of working Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.
An effective health literacy and financial wellness program can be to your health insurance premiums what a safety program is to your workers’ compensation premiums — a way to control costs and be a benefit that helps everyone.

 Recent articles and resources of interest:

Jean HanvikJean Hanvik is the communications director for the Minnesota Health Action Group.