As many employers develop wellness programs as part of an effort to reduce their health care costs, few companies create the kind of comprehensive programs that are likely to make a meaningful difference in employees' health. In a study by the Center for Studying Health System Change for the National Institute for Health Care Reform, wellness experts, benefits consulting firms and employers offered several guidelines:

  • Programs need to be customized to suit the employer's culture. Programs consisting only of online health risk assessments and Web-based educational tools, with no individualized follow-up, are least likely to make an impact.
  • Ongoing communication is needed at several levels. In addition to communication from senior leaders, successful programs tend to have both dedicated wellness staff and informal champions within the company.
  • Programs that are comprehensive, integrated and diversified stand the best chance of success. Behavior modification programs offered in isolation typically aren't successful.
  • Most experts believe financial incentives are essential, but exceptions exist. Some employers operate successful programs with minimal or no cash rewards.
  • Return on investment is uncertain, and measurement poses many challenges. Employers should expect to invest in wellness for several years before achieving a positive ROI, if at all. And because wellness programs are often implemented simultaneously with other benefit changes, isolating the impact of these programs on an employer's cost trends may not be possible.

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