For over twenty years, Bob Merberg has been helping employees get healthier while advancing his organization's business objectives. As Employee Wellness Manager at Paychex, a program which he oversees, Bob has won the Best Employer for Healthy Lifestyles Awards six times from the National Business Group on Health. Last year the Institute for Health Care Consumerism selected Bob as Health Care Consumerism Super Star for his accomplishments in the realm of wellness empowerment.

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Why should a company commit to wellness?

There are a lot of reasons. Companies, Dennis, commit to wellness for a variety of reasons customized to the individual company's circumstances. I think that the main thing we see is that companies understand that healthier employees are more productive at work; more productive and often have healthier lives at home as well.

Productivity issues for employees takes different forms. In some cases it's lower absenteeism. Sometimes it means less presenteeism. If any of your listeners are not familiar with presenteeism, presenteeism is time when you're at work but your productivity is compromised for health related reasons. Think of someone who is working with a migraine headache or lower back pain.

Increasingly, I think that we're seeing that employers also appreciate how wellness can enhance employee engagement, employees' commitment to their work and to their employer. There are some other things like recruitment and retention. I think that these days many employees are coming to the workplace expecting to have a wellness program available to them, so it's something that they look for and the mark of a good employer.

I think one of the things that sometimes often gets overlooked in discussions of employee wellness, Dennis, is that it's really beneficial for everyone in our society. I think that everyone would agree that a healthier population would be a good thing. In order to have a healthier population in the United States or in any country, employers have to be involved and have to step up because work is such an important part of everyone's life and a big part of where we spend most of our time.

Bob, how do companies measure the success of their programs? Is it absenteeism? Is it productivity? Do they typically put in metrics?

There's a lot of discussion, Dennis, about how a large percentage of employers do not measure the success of their wellness program. I think that a lot do. I'd say ... There's some data on it, and actually I don't ... I'd be a little bit concerned about not citing that data quite as precisely as I'd like to.

I think that as an employer sets out to consider whether their program is working and what metrics to look at they have to consider, and this is something that really needs to be decided in advance, why are you doing your program? I mentioned a few things a couple minutes ago at the outset of our discussion. If I'm doing a program to improve employee engagement, then I need to use my employee engagement data or some measure of it to measure the success of the program. If I'm interested in reducing absenteeism, then yes, I'd look at people who participated in the program and are absentee rates improving, are presenteeism rates improving. That's something that can be determined with questionnaires.

I know a lot of employers are interested in health care costs. That's been a tough nut to crack, especially amongst small employers. Employers generally should measure the success of their program and the metrics have to be based on the company's motivation for doing the program to begin with.

What are businesses actually doing currently to promote wellness?

There's a wide range of programs that employers are offering, usually dictated by their own circumstances, their resources that are available to them, and their objectives. Some of the things that we most typically see are things like nutritional counseling and brown bag sessions for health topics like nutrition, as I mentioned, stress, back pain. Flu shots is one of the most popular and common employee wellness programs. Weight management programs, biometric screenings, which include things like screenings for cholesterol and blood pressure and body weight or BMI. A lot of employers offer coaching to help their employees achieve their goals related to wellness, like getting more fit, eating more healthfully.

Then there are some things ... When I look at some of the data recently from a survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation and they divide up all the things that employers are doing, small employers and large employers, they also include things like wellness newsletters which are being offered by actually thirty-three percent of the small employers they've looked at. Web based resources. That includes things like information and assessments and interactive programs.

Smoking cessation, or I should say tobacco cessation, because a lot of people use tobacco in other forms other than cigarettes, is a common program. A couple of others, gym membership discounts are common. Depending on the size of the employer, maybe onsite fitness facilities. Very small employers are not too likely to have that. Health risk appraisals, which are a questionnaire in which the employee is asked a series of questions about their health and given some feedback on what they're doing well and what their opportunities for improvement are.

What does it typically cost per employee for a company to have a wellness program?

A company that's trying to do a robust wellness program, maybe about one hundred to ... When I think about a larger employer, it would probably go up to about five hundred dollars per employee (per year). It varies widely, especially based on whether the employer is contributing incentives for participation or for achievement.

You know, Dennis, I think the important thing is that a wellness program for a small or even a medium sized employer doesn't have to cost much at all. It even can be done with almost no expense other than the investment in the people who help organize it. I'm a little bit reluctant to say that because I think that employers should invest in wellness and that it's a good investment and you can always do more in wellness with more resources, but there are so many things that employers have available to them that they can often access for free or that they're already paying for if they're working with a health plan. They should definitely turn to their health plan and leverage those resources.

Local YMCAs, local hospitals often have programs available or are willing to send people to help out. The American Heart Association or Lung Association are usually very eager to come and assist an employer with their wellness program and they have a lot of resources available to them. There's a lot that can be done with little expense at all.