People want their employers to help them get healthy, two new reports from Canada and the U.S. suggest.

While many companies are already using a combination of workplace health services and financial incentives to improve the health of their employees, workers in both countries said they want more help from their employers in getting and staying healthy.

To improve employee health and productivity, employers are increasingly offering such programs as biometric screenings (which include cholesterol and blood sugar tests), health risk assessments, on-site clinics and pharmacies and employee assistance programs, according to a report from Aon Hewitt, a human resource consulting and outsourcing firm. Making sure that employees and their dependents are aware of these programs is a weakness for most companies, according to the research.

In 2011, more than one-third (36 percent) of consumers did not participate in any health program or service offered by their employer, the research found. Among the programs that workers did participate in, blood tests or biometric screenings were the most popular (61 percent), followed by health risk assessments (57 percent).

Despite low participation, when workers do take part in these programs, satisfaction is extremely high, the research found. Almost all (97 percent) workers who took part in blood tests or used an on-site clinic pharmacy were satisfied, while almost as many (92 percent) were satisfied with the health risk assessment.

Still, many employees don't feel their employers are fully supportive in helping them get and stay healthy, the research showed. A majority of workers (60 percent) think their company is only moderately-to-not-supportive when it comes to their efforts to be healthy.

“Employers may be missing the mark when it comes to health improvement programs being offered to workers,” said study researcher Cathy Tripp, managing principal of health and benefits at Aon Hewitt.  “Workers need to see that their efforts to become healthy are supported by the company. Developing a culture where leaders care and support healthful living communicates to workers that this matters to the company.”

Health incentives

Offering incentives for participating in health and productivity programs is one method of encouraging employees to take part in wellness programs and to stay healthy.

It's become common practice in the U.S., and a new survey by global professional services company Towers Watson shows that the number of organizations implementing this strategy in Canada is on the rise, too.

“We are seeing employers increasingly realize the importance that health and productivity programs can play in their efforts to control health care costs and maintain a productive work force,” said Wendy Poirier, health and group benefits leader for Towers Watson, in Canada. “While the outcomes of any one tactic can't be guaranteed, high-effectiveness companies with thoughtful multifaceted programs are reaping clear returns on their investments in work force health.”

One of the health problem areas in which employers need to be better focused is mental health, the Towers Watson survey found.

It found that despite growing awareness, mental health conditions continue to be the most common reason for both short-term and long-term disability claims in Canada.

Most organizations participating in the Towers Watson survey report that employee stress is a major and growing business issue, and many are planning to adapt their organizational health strategies for the next two years to include a focus on mental, as well as physical, health.

Workers participating in the survey cited excessive workloads, lack of work/life balance, unclear or conflicting job expectations and inadequate staffing as the top sources of workplace stress. The survey results indicate that the prevalence of each of these stressors has risen significantly over the last two years. For example,  nearly 9 in 10 (89 percent) of Canadian employers say excessive workload is a problem.

Ignoring employee mental health could end up hurting employers' bottom line.

“Over the past few years we've seen employers asking employees to work longer hours and to do more with less, leaving less time for healthy activities like going to the gym or eating properly,” said Keri Alletson, senior consultant and a member of the Towers Watson research team. “At the same time, people are worrying about job security and their personal wellbeing. Together, these factors can add up and take a serious toll on both physical and mental health, as well as increase absence from work and presenteeism. In addition to the individual consequence, the business consequences — higher health care costs, reduced work performance and lost productivity — can be significant.”

Employees want help

Employees say they want their employers' help in getting healthy.

Half of participants (50 percent) in the Aon Hewitt survey say they want a personalized plan that recommends specific actions they can take to improve their health. Workers are also looking for convenient, one-stop access to information, such as a company health website offering personalized tips. Workers would also like help from their employers in estimating health care and health insurance costs with the use of a cost-estimating calculator or other tools or advice that can be customized to each worker's situation.

“If companies truly want to move the needle in terms of overall health and cost, they have to stop looking at employees as one group, and start looking at the individual,” said Joann Hall Swenson, principal and health engagement best practice leader at Aon Hewitt. “Employers can customize health information and related programs to address the specific health conditions and risks of their workers as well as offer specific tips and actionable steps they can take to improve their condition. In addition, offering tools that allow individuals to see and understand the cost of their health care services goes a long way in helping workers make the most of their health care dollars.”

According to consumers, the best way to motivate them to participate in employer-sponsored health plans is by using rewards. More than half of consumers would prefer either non-cash or cash incentives to encourage them to take part in wellness plans (60 percent), condition management programs(50 percent) or to respond to  health risk questionnaires (58 percent).

The Towers Watson survey found that the companies that are most successful at encouraging employee wellness, invest more in health and productivity than organizations with less-effective programs. They also focus not just on physical health prevention, but build programs that address both health care and workplace conditions, the survey found.

According to the survey, employers with effective health and productivity programs are doing much more to link senior leaders to program performance, engage employees in the management of their health with incentives, measure program outcomes, target preventable causes of employee absence and personalize communications for specific employee populations.

“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that effective health and productivity programs can make a real difference to an organization’s bottom line,” Poirier said. “There are unrelenting pressures on employers and employees today, but improving employee health is an opportunity for a true win-win.”

This story was provided by BusinessNewsDaily, a sister site to MyHealthNewsDaily.

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