Written by Rod Moore

Wellness programs and hospitals seem to go hand-in-hand. After all, hospital employees would be wise to heed their own advice given to patients.

According to a 2015 American Hospital Association survey, 87 percent of hospitals offered a wellness program to employees. In addition, the proportion of hospitals offering health and wellness programs to the larger community increased from 47 percent to 66 percent in just five years

Most workplace wellness programs have two primary goals: improve the overall health of employees and lower employers’ health care costs. However, there are conflicting reports on the effectiveness and the return on investment of workplace wellness program. A report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which studied employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, highlighted the ineffectiveness of incentives to affect employee wellness, and a study by the RAND Corp. found most programs don’t reduce health costs. Other studies and employers have noted various forms of effectiveness from anecdotal employee-specific successes to periodic trends in decreased weight or smoking cessation.

While the debate continues about whether wellness programs are worth the financial investment for hospitals, a new metric is beginning to emerge—employee satisfaction.

Leaders are now looking at ways wellness programs can keep employees engaged and satisfied with their workplace — a potentially successful tactic to bolster retention.

Harris Health Hits Reset on Wellness

In Houston, Harris Health System’s wellness program was established years ago, but leadership recently embraced expansion of the program to include modifying behavior to get intended outcomes. According to Michele Hunnicut, program director for Harris Health’s employee wellness and employee assistance program, the investment of additional resources has proven to be worth the commitment for employees.

“Over the course of the last two to three years, we’ve tried to take a step in the direction of outcome and behavior change,” Hunnicut said. “Last February is when we really committed to taking progress to the next level and putting a solid strategy in place. We rebranded the program to Healthy at Harris with buy-in from our employees as well.”

Employee participation levels have reached 88.6 percent.

The American Heart Association recently recognized the Healthy at Harris program as a gold-level Workplace Health Achievement site for improving employees’ health and well-being.

Hunnicut said Harris Health is trying new things and embracing technologies to provide more options for employees and their busy lifestyles. Hunnicut believes the wellness program has impacted employee satisfaction since her tenure began only about a year ago. “To me the employee engagement puzzle is much more than just wellness, and we have to continue to tap into all of the other touchpoints with employees to make sure that the culture matches what we're trying to create and foster.”

“What we do with our employee workforce should be what we then take to our patients because they're dealing with some of the same types of issues and challenges that our employees are,” Hunnicut said. Incentives for employees often range from gift cards to cash awards for meeting participation, completion and/ or outcomes goals. “I think incentives help people make the decision to consciously engage, which helps get them into the program,” Hunnicut said.

Consistently measuring the value of the wellness program is also important, Hunnicut said, particularly with respect to data around specific targets and milestones.

“The weakest part I've seen among wellness programs is people not setting up what they're trying to achieve because they don't set those goals up front and they're not measuring progress,” Hunnicut said. “Obviously you have to continue measuring progress, but you need to measure what matters or it's not going to have the impact that you desire.”

Employees Thrive at Gonzales Health

Last year, Gonzales Healthcare Systems, located approximately 75 miles east of San Antonio, spearheaded a rather unique concept for a wellness program, pairing it with the opening of a multipurpose 50,000-sq.-ft. community-based wellness facility known as Thrive Healthplex.

Although the original wellness program at GHS has been in existence for over 15 years, Dewey Smith, executive director of the Thrive Healthplex and a THA Leadership Fellow in 2017, said Thrive and the wellness program came about after a nearly 10-year journey of rethinking the concept of a wellness initiative from the ground up.

“As opposed to just building a bigger and better version of what we already had, we really thought about how do we meaningfully impact people's lives and do it in a way that hasn't been done before or it certainly hasn't been done in a rural environment,” Smith said.

Thrive offers numerous outreach efforts and programs for the many residents who live in surrounding rural areas. For instance, Gonzales has partnered with Texas A&M University on a monthly diabetes education program.

Patrons and employees both are encouraged to keep track of their progress through the Gonzales Healthcare wellness portal. An on-site medical clinic also sets Thrive apart from other community oriented complexes.

Since opening Thrive a year ago, Smith said nearly half of Gonzales Healthcare’s employees are members of the facility.

Smith believes the key to making a wellness program successful with employees is to continue to evolve and create new ways for employees to be engaged. “If you want to really meaningfully impact the health, wellness and satisfaction of your employees, you have to constantly innovate and find new ways to give people a reason to participate,” Smith said

However, the challenge with a metric like employee satisfaction is being able to make a direct connection to benefits like wellness programs.

“The best metric for this kind of endeavor (a wellness program) is beating the pavement and talking to your employees and asking, ‘What can we do to bring more value into your life?’” Smith said. “Unfortunately, that's not easily measured.”