D.C.-area employers bank on wellness programs | Crain's Washington D.C.

D.C.-area employers bank on wellness programs

Johns Hopkins employees paddled a “Grateful Bread” dragon boat at the 2017 Baltimore Dragon Boat Challenge at Under Armour Headquarters in Baltimore. The competition was among the activities that make up Hopkins’ wellness program. | Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the largest health insurer in the mid-Atlantic region, encourages its member companies to institute wellness programs.

Now, the company will be applying the same approach to its roughly 5,000 employees. On Jan. 8, CareFirst finalized a contract with Atlanta-based Sharecare to provide wellness and disease management services beginning next year. The four-year contract will give CareFirst members access to a personalized mobile and web-based platform designed to help them understand their health and give them suggestions for steps they can take to improve it.

“We are committed to providing our members with the tools and information they need to take an active role in improving their health,” CareFirst President and CEO Chet Burrell said in a press release.

CareFirst’s partnership with ShareCare is an example of what many employers throughout the D.C. area—and nationwide—are doing through corporate wellness programs, designed to improve employee health and reduce healthcare expenses and absenteeism. In a 2017 survey of U.S. companies, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 59 percent said they offered corporate wellness programs this year, and 71 percent provided wellness resources and information. The number of companies reporting wellness programs has stayed roughly steady around 60 percent since 2008, with a peak of 70 percent in 2015, according to SHRM.

Meanwhile, the corporate wellness industry—defined as companies that provide workplace programs to improve employee health—is booming. Between 2011 and 2016, the $7.8 billion industry grew 4.8 percent per year on average, according to a February 2016 report by IBISWorld. And that growth is projected to continue by another 7.8 percent per year on average from 2016 to 2021, when IBISWorld predicts the wellness industry will reach $11.3 billion in revenue.

Wellness initiatives may include health risk assessments and programs to help employees stop smoking, manage their weight and become more active, and often include incentives for completion. Given the rising costs of healthcare, wellness is a concern for employers across the board—but the benefits may go beyond simply reducing healthcare costs.

“Healthy employees are good employees,” said Dr. Richard Safeer, medical director for employee health, wellbeing and innovation at Johns Hopkins Medicine, which started its own corporate wellness program in 2007. “The results we’re looking for are a culture change. We’re trying to move toward our employees making healthier choices.”

Hopkins works with Wellness Corporate Solutions of Bethesda to push its 42,000 employees toward healthier living. The hospital system has established breastfeeding rooms for new mothers and overhauled its beverage choices so the majority are healthy and cost less than unhealthy choices. The healthier drinks are placed at eye level.

Hopkins also has taken steps to help employees quit smoking through coaching, classes and nicotine replacement therapy. Employees who don’t smoke see reductions in their insurance premiums as an incentive. Other incentives include $10 a week bonuses per quarter for any employees earning 120 points, which can be accumulated by walking 10,000 steps a day, reading various articles and passing quizzes.

Since 2016, Hopkins has used the Worksite Health ScoreCard, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University, to improve the health of its workers, addressing such issues as hypertension, nutrition, breastfeeding and stress reduction.

While Hopkins doesn’t have follow-up data yet from the scorecard, the institution is “moving in the right direction,” according to Safeer.

Fiona Gathright, president of Hopkins’ partner in the effort, Wellness Corporate Solutions, said her team assesses a company’s environment and health culture, then designs a program to fit individual needs.

The company’s health coaches work with employees at risk of preventable conditions like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. It also does health screenings for cholesterol, blood pressure, body composition, glucose levels and cotinine, which measures nicotine in the blood. Participation rates are pegged at 20 percent to 90 percent, depending on the types of incentives individual employers offer.

Though the company does not share individual results with the employer, it prepares aggregate reports on the number of employees with specific problems like hypertension and diabetes, and uses the information to develop programs.

“Hypertension is a lifestyle disease. It can be controlled through diet and exercise. Our health coaches work with participants to help them make small, positive changes,” she said.

Andy Schaeffer, owner and founder of the wellness company Next Phase, takes the same customization approach but comes at corporate wellness from a fitness perspective. Schaeffer started the business three years ago as an exercise studio in Bethesda after years as a gym manager.

“I wanted to take group exercise out of the gym and make it better,” he said. “When we opened the studio, I started building relationships with the companies around me. One company approached us about designing a program. It was a good fit. Once we had successes, we started to branch out.”

Now Next Phase designs programs for about 15 companies and government entities, ranging from 30 to 1,200 employees. The company has two group exercise studios in Bethesda and Arlington, Va., and a personal training studio in Bethesda. It employs 25 people, both as staff and on contract, who are also dispatched for onsite programs.

“Our approach is more focused on high quality people [trainers] and who we’re providing for,” Schaeffer said. “We have the ability to customize and tailor a program, and to work closely with a company. We don’t approach any situation saying, ‘Let’s do things like this, this and this.’ We build the program around them.”

Schaeffer said he likes to provide companies with as many options as possible and has found that employees sometimes want very different things than what the employer thought. For example, employers often think employees want gym memberships, when in fact they might prefer cooking demos or other opportunities on-site. Schaeffer said he first surveys employees to determine what they want, be it exercise classes, stress relief, meditation or “things I can do at my desk.”

Sometimes, it’s as simple as sending instructors to conduct exercise classes in a conference room a couple of times a week.

“All we need is space,” he said. “It makes it convenient for the employees and creates a culture where everyone is exercising.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Johns Hopkins Medicine's wellness partner. It is Wellness Corporate Solutions.

January 16, 2018 - 3:48pm