Getting the most out of health evaluations

Monday, February 9, 2015

There’s no doubt that health promotion positively affects employee lifestyle habits and has a net benefit on group insurance plan costs. We now know that workplace health programs benefit employers as much as they do employees, which is likely why the number of employers offering them increased from 47% in 2012 to 64% in 2013. However, for the programs to be truly effective, employees need to understand the importance of healthy lifestyle choices, and most employer health-promotion strategies don’t actually reflect employee needs. Considering the investment involved, it’s in the employer’s best interest to analyze employees’ needs, state of health and primary concerns before launching a program. Laying the groundwork ensures employees' needs are met and increases the chances of a successful health-promotion program.

Health evaluations

One of the best ways to evaluate employee needs is to have them fill out the confidential online health questionnaire provided by the insurer or the service provider. The higher the employee participation rate, the more representative the results. And results can only be reported if the number of employees who participate is high enough to guarantee anonymity. Employees need to know that their employer will only see the results if the participation rate reaches a certain level, and that the results only provide general information on the group as a whole.

The data from health evaluations provides an overall snapshot of health risks that can have short-, medium- and long-term repercussions. The data also shows the employer where employees might be willing to make lifestyle changes. The employer can then use this information to develop suitable health incentives and allocate the resources needed to put effective health promotion activities into place. When the employer compares the initial evaluation to later evaluations, they can assess the effectiveness of the health program and/or the incentives.

On their own, health evaluations are a way of educating employees and motivating them to make healthier lifestyle choices. When they get individual results and suggestions for concrete actions, employees become more aware about their health and more likely to take steps to improve it.

It’s recommended that health evaluations be conducted regularly—about every year or two. Employees can see their progress after each evaluation and decide if they should consult a health professional.

Why health questionnaires are important

Some employees are reluctant to fill out questionnaires because they mistakenly think their employer will have access to their personal health information. Employers should stress that the questionnaires are strictly confidential and that employees will get a personal report back that includes important health information and even some advice. It’s in the employer’s best interest to explain to their employees as clearly as possible the advantages of filling out the questionnaire. Employers might also want to launch a health campaign and track the number of employees who complete health evaluations. Managers could then send out reminders to boost participation. Another approach would be to organize a health-related contest or draw. Getting employees to understand the importance senior management places on health-related data collection is fundamental for the initiative to be successful.

A snapshot of overall organizational health

There are also other evaluations that can be conducted to get a general idea of the health of the organization as a whole, including an analysis of the organization’s demographic curve and the overall health culture. Taking a global snapshot puts an initial point down on a timeline, which then serves as a reference for future health initiatives and promotional activities.

Trends in health promotion strategies

Health promotion strategies that best reflect employees’ needs, preferences and desire to change are: physical activity, nutrition, lifestyle changes, weight management, fatigue, stress, work/life balance and mental health. But employers can get even more specific and still measure outcomes; they might focus on smoking cessation, measuring and monitoring cholesterol, using ergonomics to avoid musculoskeletal problems, screening for skin cancer and breast cancer, launching vaccination campaigns, or managing high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma, etc.

Ensuring success

Even though it’s not hard to implement health promotion initiatives, employers are sometimes disappointed with the results—usually because they didn’t go about it the right way. Results will always be disappointing without a strategic, integrated approach.

Above all, it’s important to set objectives and benchmarks that will measure the success of an activity or program. It improves employers’ chances of meeting their goals, and they can decide to repeat the activity, make changes or try a different incentive next time. Applying thoughtful strategies that meet organizational needs and have themes that interest employees contributes to much more sound, focused and effective health promotion. But any health promotion activity should also be evaluated based on company objectives.

Employers can count on insurers to help them promote health initiatives and support existing wellness programs in the company. Insurers offer services that make employers and plan members aware of health matters and prompt companies to promote prevention. They can also provide employees with a lot of information on how to stay healthy or deal with a health issue.

Commitment from the top

In the most recent Sanofi Healthcare Survey, Dr. Alain Sotto, Occupational Medical Consultant for the Toronto Transit Commission, says he believes the success of any health promotion program depends on employer commitment. Too many employers think of health programs just as a means of attracting and retaining employees, forgetting that they’re also a way to keep employees healthy and productive.

When senior management endorses healthy lifestyle choices and openly practices them, the rest of the organization is more likely to follow suit. It’s not about running a marathon or becoming a health nut—it’s about supporting and defending values that contribute to health and well-being. Managers can lead by example by getting annual check-ups, regularly participating in company health and wellness campaigns, taking part in local health activities—and by developing effective programs based on the results of the health risk evaluations.