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Wellness Programs Can Help Ease the Burden of Healthcare Costs

April 25, 2017

Most people spend one-third of their adult lives in workplaces. They do not leave health conditions at home when they go to work or leave their illnesses at work when they return home.  Addressing wellness in an integrated way can help employees manage complicated health issues, improving their lives and the lives of their families. Wellness programs can also help businesses by easing the burden of healthcare costs, increasing worker productivity, and ultimately, improving business results.  In fact, a study sponsored by Mercer and the Health Enhancement Research Organization found that companies that invested in comprehensive wellness programs outperformed the S&P 500 Index over six years.

The costs of chronic illness in the United States have skyrocketed over the last several decades. Let’s look at a single illness, Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes mellitus is an endocrine disorder wherein the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to safely manage blood sugar levels. Sustained high blood sugar levels can cause nerve and organ damage, eventually leading to blindness, liver and kidney damage, amputation of the extremities, and even death. It’s a serious and growing problem, exacerbated by sedentary lifestyles, poor nutrition choices, and an increasingly aging population.

More concerning, many individuals with Type 2 diabetes have no idea they have it. Of the 29 million estimated cases in the United States, approximately 8 million of these are undiagnosed, according to the CDC. There can be symptoms, including excessive thirst and increased urination, but these are easily missed. The only accurate way to uncover the disorder is by blood test.

The American Diabetes Association estimates that for a company with 1,000 employees:

  • 120 employees have diabetes.
  • 34 of them are undiagnosed.
  • 370 have pre-diabetes (some form of glucose intolerance that can lead to diabetes).

The average insurance cost for employees with diabetes and pre-diabetes is $4 million, with an additional $751,682 annual increased cost if 25% of employees with pre-diabetes develop diabetes. The CDC estimates that in the United States alone, diagnosed diabetes costs $69 billion in decreased productivity—meaning absences, less productivity at work, or disability.

Diabetes is also preventable and manageable, as long as people know their risk factors and have the resources available to manage it. This is where a comprehensive workplace wellness program can help. Employers can help workers by offering risk assessment screenings, nutrition counseling, exercise and wellness initiatives, and a commitment to healthy living.

Wellness programs have become an important tool for many companies interested in improving their employees’ health. It’s good for the employees—improved health, better job satisfaction, and sometimes monetary incentives—and good for the employers—reduced sick days, higher productivity, and decreased overall health costs.

Wellness programs can offer health screenings for other conditions like hypertension and high cholesterol, access to gyms or other fitness facilities, and interaction with professionals who can assist with nutrition, smoking cessation, or mental health wellness. Given the spiraling costs of employee healthcare and the known benefits of workplace health promotion programs, any employer who hasn’t added a wellness program may be missing an opportunity to better the lives of employees while improving their bottom line.