CIOs Try To Decide If Wellness Programs Are A Good Idea

The big question is do they work?
The big question is do they work?
Image Credit: Army Medicine

CIOs everywhere are in the middle of trying to make their work environments more attractive to their employees. The pandemic changed everything and now we’re struggling to try to get staff to come back to the office while at the same time trying to prevent them from leaving the company. As we look for ways to get people to want to work for our company, the idea of implementing a wellness program keeps coming up. These programs can help with an employee’s health and may make them feel more positive towards the company. However, the big question that CIOs need to be able to answer is do they work?

Do Wellness Programs Work?

CIOs are embracing wellness programs, betting that if they can get IT workers to stop smoking, lose weight, or adopt other healthy behaviors that will reduce healthcare costs and potentially boost productivity. However, there is a problem with this idea. The problem is that as even these programs grow in popularity research has found little evidence that they actually improve IT workers’ health. That CIOs are paying closer attention to employee health isn’t all that surprising. It cost them about US$16,000 per employee on average to provide health insurance family coverage, according to a survey. This doesn’t include the $6,000 on average that IT employees pay or any job-performance costs associated with workers who are unhealthy.

Since both insurance premiums and healthcare costs are driven overwhelmingly by chronic illnesses rooted in personal behavior, many organizations have moved from simply offering advice on how to be healthy to starting to implement more aggressive programs designed to change worker behaviors. Among large employers that provide health benefits, more than 80% have created some type of wellness program that help their workers identify and ward off health problems. Previous surveys found that about half of large companies that provide health benefits offer biometric screening to measure a person’s risk factors for chronic disease, while 30% collect data on employees through mobile apps or wearable devices such as Fitbits. More than half of these programs offer financial incentives to participants, and 18% tie the incentives to achieving specific biometric targets, such as “lose this much weight.”

The people who are charged with implementing these types of programs often defend their programs by saying that workers who participate in them can become healthier and more productive. However, the research shows that people who elect to participate in wellness programs tend to be healthier and more capable in the first place. What CIOs need to be aware of is that a number of carefully designed studies aimed at examining the effects of wellness programs found they don’t improve health outcomes at all. One reason that adding incentives to this type of program doesn’t make it work is because the incentives to choose healthy behaviors are already huge. If these incentives aren’t enough to change behavior, it is unlikely that a modest financial incentive will help.

How Can CIO’s Have An Impact On Employee Health?

Is there something more effective that CIOs should be doing instead? In the wellness context, new research is finding that the most significant barriers to changing lifestyles are related to both living situations and income levels. Things such as a worker not having an established primary-care physician, not having the ability to get to a gym or not knowing how to prepare healthy meals are the kinds of things that can lead to persistent differences in employee health outcomes.

Therefore, helping employees get access to a primary-care doctor might be one of the most important things CIOs could do to improve employee health outcomes. A quarter of adults and 35% of younger adults currently don’t have access to a primary-care doctor, and that percentage has only been growing. The process of finding a reputable doctor who takes a person’s insurance and is accepting new patients can be difficult even for people with resources. CIOs and their insurance providers have the scale and the technology to match employees to the right doctor. And if workers have a primary-care doctor, employers can skip collecting the biometric data because doctors collect that anyway and are in a much better position to do something with it. Employee health-insurance plans also should support preventive care, such as screenings for health risks and follow-up visits for chronic health problems like hypertension.

CIOs also might want to gather information from their employees via surveys and interviews about what stands in the way of their improving their health. Survey results might suggest, for example, that a CIO would be better off subsidizing gym memberships near employees’ homes rather than turning office space into a gym. Or CIOs might mandate a serious lunchtime break from meetings and work so that employees can get some exercise. Most IT employees already want to lead healthier lives. If we try to create additional motivation with incentives that disproportionately favor those who are already healthy is essentially diverting resources away from those who need them to those who don’t. It is time for CIOs to take a different approach.

What All Of This Means For You

In order for the IT department to be successful, the workers need to come to work (even if it is virtually). However, if workers are struggling with chronic health related issues, then focusing on work is going to be a challenge. CIOs understand this and they realize that they need to take steps to help their workers take control of their personal health. One way that is being considered is to create wellness programs. However, CIOs need to know if these types of programs actually work.

Wellness programs have been created to encourage IT workers to adopt healthy lifestyles. However, the problem with these programs is that there is very little evidence that they actually work. Chronic illnesses are a big driver of overall health costs and so many CIOs have started to try to push workers to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Financial incentives have often been parts of these programs. One of the biggest problems with programs like this is that they seem to attract healthy people – not the people who need to make lifestyle changes. It turns out that living situations and income levels are the two things that can have the greatest impact on a worker’s health. Making sure that IT employees have access to doctors and a pharmacy could go a long way in helping them to become healthier. Additionally, asking them what changes they would like to see in order to become healthier is always a good move.

CIOs can help their workers become healthier. However, we need to understand that the current popular approaches may not work for our workers. Instead, we need to take a hard look at the numbers and understand what will really work for our IT team. If we can implement the correct set of changes, then our IT workers can become healthier and that should boost productivity.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: What’s the best way to measure how much of a need there is for some sort of wellness effort by a CIO?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

I think that we can all agree that things change. As CIOs a key part of our job is both adapting to change and helping our company adapt to change. However, right now there are changes that are going on that are outside of our control. Our very company is changing under our feet and we need to be ready for the new company that is getting ready to appear. The role of the CIO is still going to be important; however, how the company needs us may be what is going to change.