Mortgage Companies’ Survival Includes Healthy Employees

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TME-Becky-BarbaraBenjamin Franklin pronounced “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. With the focus on keeping employees healthy, productive and happy, companies are realizing that there is value in including corporate wellness programs into their culture. Mortgage companies need to take a proactive position and take their employee’s wellness seriously especially since the industry is filled with high stress situations including government regulation adherence and cost containment.

“Corporate Wellness” is defined as an organized, employer-sponsored program (typically voluntary) that is designed to support employees as they adopt and sustain behaviors that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness and enhance the organization’s bottom line. Recognizing the value of good family wellness, some corporations include families as well in their plans.

More and more employees are being encouraged to take a more active role in managing their health and their healthcare spending choices. Company sponsored wellness programs can play a major role in driving down the cost of healthcare benefits. MetLife reported that three out of four employers (roughly 72%) who offer wellness programs say they are effectively reducing medical costs. Since employees spend more waking hours at work, their workplace is the right setting for participating in a wellness program. The Council of State Government’s Healthy States initiative showed that a typical employer spends about $18K a year per employee for costs related to health care and lost productivity due to illness. Many companies are seeing a $3 to $6 return on every dollar invested in a wellness program. Wellness programs effect drops in absenteeism, health care premiums and disability/workplace compensation costs according to this council.

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Many insurance companies such as Aetna, Humana and UnitedHealth Care offer some type of health/wellness program. The companies have formalized programs which include a catalogue of options for what they can want to offer. They also offer on-line support. For example, if an employee is laid-off they can call and get support such as guides for looking for a new job. These are known as Employee Assistance Programs (“EAP”). Companies that specialize in administering wellness programs such as ADP are offering similar benefits to their employees and their clients. Companies can also design their own programs which are common of employers employing less than 50 people.

The Society of Human Resources (SHRM) suggests including a variety of choices that target particular behavior and customize a program to the needs and interests of a company’s employees. Examples of a program could include Stress Management which is a huge problem for many people in a workplace environment. Weight Loss Management, Smoking Cessation, Health Risk Screenings, Fitness Programs and activities and Nutrition/Healthy Eating education and also popular focuses. Many companies have a person the in the HR department identified to manage this process – Wellness Coordinator or Director of Health and Wellness. Some companies create committees (volunteer employees and management) to implement a plan, set expectations and check in regularly to keep participants motivated and interested in continuing to improve their health. It’s really important that leadership see the value of a wellness program and actively be involved in this program and lead by example for it to be effective.

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Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health have found that employers plan to increase incentive budgets for employees who wish to participate in these programs by 15% in 2014 compared to 2013. This would include such things as team weight loss competitions, etc. Robert Kennedy, Health and Welfare Practice Leader with Fidelity stated that the use and measurement of corporate wellness programs continues to evolve. He also shared that many employers understand the value of and are committed to wellness-based incentives in their company health plan.

One of the big issues facing employees today is stress, particularly when things change at work. This is in fact the number one issue facing many companies. Stress has to be managed as it can cause not only loss of work but such complications as serious health issues, poor morale and employees leaving the company. The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program includes a fact sheet that quantifies these numbers. They state that: 69% of employees report that work is a significant source of stress and 41% say they typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday. Fifty-one percent (51%) of employees said they are less productive at work as a result of stress based on studies done by the American Psychological Association. An additional 52% of employees report that they are considering or have made a decision about their career such as looking for a new job, declining a promotion or leaving a job based on workplace stress. Corporate Wellness Programs are a rich resource for educating and managing stress.

A big question consistently asked is “what is the return on investment (ROI) for implementing a health/wellness program for a company or organization?” Johnson and Johnson stated in an article written in 2010 “What’s the Hard Return on Employee Programs?” that their employees who smoke dropped by more than two-thirds since 1995. The number who have high blood pressure or who were physically inactive also declined by more than half. They found that a comprehensive, strategically designed investment in employee’s social, mental and physical health pays off. Their wellness programs have cumulatively saved the company $250M on health care costs over the past decade with a Return on Investment (ROI) of $2.71 for every dollar spent.

With current tax incentive programs and grants that are available under recent federal health care legislation, US companies can use wellness programs to cut down on their health care costs which will continue to rise. In addition, healthy employees are more likely to stay with a company that promotes their health as well. Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health shows that organizations with highly effective wellness programs report significantly lower voluntary attrition than do those whose programs have low effectiveness. By implementing a wellness program lenders can show employees that their health is important to the company; a simple but effective message.

Insurance premium reductions for participation in wellness programs accounted for the biggest differences between those employers that reported wellness program ROI and those that didn’t.   Forty nine (49%) of the ROI groups providing this incentive as opposed to 29% of the non-ROI group according to Stephen Miller, CEBS an online editor/manager for SHRM. Other popular incentives included gift cards, non-cash incentives, prizes and raffles. He stated that wellness program participants increased dramatically when incentives were tied to health screenings and health risk assessments. Barbara has seen this first hand when managing health fairs for companies and facilitating wellness workshops. Educating employees on what they eat and how that impacts their health, explaining how some sort of physical activity is good for the heart and learning some simple techniques to lower and mange stress, helps get people get motivated in making some needed changes in their personal health management. People are drawn to enticements for completing or participating in programs so it’s important to create fun programs where people want to get involved and see the value in doing so.

Even recent changes in the law, such as the, The Affordable Care Act, offer inducements to launch a worker wellness program. The Wall Street Journal published in a recent article entitled, “A Health Check for Wellness Programs”, that the Affordable Care Act encourages the growth of wellness programs by increasing both the maximum incentives and the maximum penalties employers may use. One example given is CVS Health Corp. Employees who don’t complete an annual health risk assessment and health screening pay $600 more per year for their health premiums than those that do. CVS said the information is kept confidential by a third party and cannot be accessed by company management. But employers are treading carefully when it comes to toughened wellness programs.

Of course, privacy is always a concern and two lawsuits filed on this very issue has raised the volume of concerns about worker’s privacy and the border between voluntary and compulsory participation. The Wall Street Journal stated that the suits and lack of firm guidance from the EEOC complicates an already fraught question of how to get involved in employees’ well-being without sowing discontent among the workforce or inviting legal and ethical complaints. Concerns about violating the Americans with Disabilities Act which forbids employers from requiring medical exams and making disability-related inquiries are real. In terms of compliance, the key issue is making sure there are alternatives for someone who is incapable of getting the benefits from a component of a plan. There has to be choices.

Despite these concerns, participants in wellness programs are absent from work less often and perform better at their jobs. Employees in wellness programs are more engaged in their workplace and are happier. Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin’s employee wellness offshoot company, Virgin Pulse recently stated her belief that employees are most likely to thrive when the program includes incentives, competitions, and the ability to add friends and family members. A 2013 Rand report found that employee weight-loss programs worked best when competition was a factor.

Of course getting employee participation can be a challenge. One way to encourage employees to improve their health is through real-time tracking like a platform such as Elencee’s Ten or wearing fitness devices. Christine Robbins, VP of Jawbone Health and Wellness found that people respond to real-time data on the steps they are taking and calories burned and even cell phones will do that for an employee. Wellness platforms can track not only the fitness and calories consumed but also the effects of restful sleep plus more.

Successful wellness programs have to include the following:

>> Leadership at all levels – from the “C” suite to middle management down through the ranks have to be consistent in their messages around how important the wellness program is. They have to “walk the talk”.

>> An effective wellness program takes time and should be part of the company’s culture and reviewed at least once a year for effectiveness.

>> Employees have to be engaged in the wellness program for it to be effective. Therefore the program has to be enticing, engaging, comprehensive and consistent.

>> At this point in time, wellness programs have to be voluntary and in order for them to be effective, employees should not have to pay for the program themselves unless the cost is low for them. As an option insurance companies/insurance brokers are a great resource for guidance on putting together a program and many have wellness dollars available through benefit plans for employers with over 50 on the staff.

>> In order for a program to be successful a person has to be designated to coordinate and be the point person for the wellness program. The may be in the HR department or at least work with HR. A wellness committee can be formed from volunteers in the company but again, one person needs to be the contact person. Accountability, motivation, new ideas, participation are parts of what this person will be responsible for.

>> Collaborating with outside vendors including insurance companies can provide programs to be utilized on an ongoing basis. Examples of this are screenings provided by vendors, offering chair massage or chair yoga, fitness advice from local gyms, etc.

>> Communication is so important on many levels including wellness throughout a company; keeping people abreast about the health/wellness program through newsletters, blogs, website postings, social networks, wellness workshops and seminars and events. It is especially important for the leaders and managers of the organization to get involved and lead challenges, share messages, etc.

>> Make sure there is interaction in the programs, not just a one-way presentations or training without letting employees share their concerns, questions, input. Be mindful that “death by PowerPoint is real; there has be to real conversations.

>> Programs can be created for those companies who have multiple locations or people working remotely. It’s up to the company to create something worthwhile for all even if it’s managed in part via the web.

The bottom line is that employee wellness programs are becoming as important to companies as training and technology. These programs are becoming more and more mainstream and popular with companies who see the value of taking care of their employees. Even better it helps keep down costs. Understanding that better health in the workplace is critical if we as an industry work through the challenges facing us as part of our struggle to succeed. According to Aetna Insurance companies and organizations are reaching out in large numbers to the insurance brokers and insurance carriers for their help in developing these programs. This trend will get stronger and stronger and not go away. The mortgage industry has to jump on the bandwagon and take a more proactive approach. By doing so sends the message that you care about your employee’s well-being.

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