Companies Re-Think Health and Wellness Programs to Protect Workers from COVID-19

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be the breakdown of silos within organizations. With the plethora of presumption laws and orders, the many guidances being issued and the exposure to liability, employers are increasingly finding themselves on the defense in terms of whether and how well they are protecting their employees from the virus.

Some are finding answers by rethinking and integrating their health and wellness initiatives. Combined with the use of new technologies, it could be the start of a transformation in how businesses address the health of their workforces.

Health and Wellness Programs

“Wellness programs are contentious,” said Scott Cherry, MD, chief Medical Officer for Axiom Medical. “It’s been hard to find a lot of compelling evidence to support a sustainable wellness program.”

For one thing, the return on investment has been limited, if there is any at all. Much of the benefit has been anecdotal. While there has been research showing that companies with strong, sustained health and wellness programs outperform similar organizations on stock prices, that typically takes several years to materialize. Many organizations abandon their programs before that occurs.

Another challenge to successful health and wellness programs has been the way they’ve been approached.

“Historically they’ve been solitary initiatives,” said Dara Wheeler, chief Revenue Officer for Axiom. They may include “a health risk assessment, or paying people to change their habits; ‘biggest loser’ competitions, or sending people to websites. At the end of the program you’re trying to impact dollars and the health of your employees and their families. Any one of these initiatives don’t work on their own.”

During a webinar on Employee Health Technology Transformation Wheeler and Cherry said COVID has blurred the lines between traditional and occupational medicine, and has caused companies to rethink the potential value of combining their resources.

“Before COVID the business case for wellness programs may have been soft,” Cherry said. “Because of how COVID is blurring the lines the business case may be much stronger to help improve the high-risk categories in your workforce.”

For example, people with diabetes may have understood that the condition puts them at risk for other physical problems. But with recent evidence showing it is one of the highest risk factors for poor outcomes with COVID-19, there is a heightened awareness of the need to monitor and address the condition.

“We’re now seeing the need to invest in systemic and well thought out plans for how to approach wellness plans,” Wheeler said. “Health and wellness is usually owned by HR, where occupational health is in Safety or Risk Management. We’re starting to see a collaborative approach in some of the progressive organizations and thinking about health and wellness.”

Creating an Effective Program

How and where a health and wellness program is situated within an organization affects how they are implemented and resourced. That can be a major limitation.

Instead, a systemic and multi-layered approach offers a better chance of success, the speakers said.

“It starts at the top,” Wheeler said. “Leadership commitment, funding commitment is critical. If leadership sees the importance of doing it long term, there is a much better opportunity for success.”

One of the barriers to health and wellness programs has been the inability to get employees to engage with them. With COVID, though, employees may be more likely to embrace the idea of working among other healthy employees. In fact, that’s a place to start when developing the plan.

“If you start there it will be successful in the long term,” Wheeler said. “Get their buy-in. Continually getting that feedback and engagement, results in sustaining of the program.”

The idea of a collaborative health and wellness program relates to the Total Worker Health approach. Initiated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, it seeks to break down silos within companies.

“You have strength and weaknesses of the traditional medical system. At same time also have pros and cons of occupational medicine reach to your employees,” Cherry said. “They are very effective within their scope, but there’s this potential much bigger synergy if those two medical systems could integrate more effectively; a synergy of outcomes. It’s what we need in our country.”

Red Tape and Privacy

Bureaucracy has been one of the main hurdles to successful health and wellness efforts within organizations. But that may be changing.

“Before COVID there were silos or rules about privacy or the culture of privacy and who’s paying for these services; operations, the corporate budget, whatever. We’d always come up against some obstacle that prevented full integration,” Cherry said. “Because of how COVID has affected the country, the country has lowered a lot of the bureaucracy that has fostered those challenges between personal and occupational medicine.”

Companies are using tools such as wearables to monitor workers’ temperatures throughout the day. Technological devices can also be used, for example to monitor the quantity and quality of sleep a safety sensitive worker gets each night. That information, available in real time, could be used to prevent a fatigued driver from having an accident while behind the wheel of a big rig.

In the short term, technology can be used to identify workers at higher risk for poor outcomes from COVID and return workers to worksites by risk stratifying them.

A key piece of advice from the speakers is using this technology with a keen awareness of privacy.

“You have to have a third party to manage the data so the organization itself doesn’t have access to personal information,” Wheeler said. “Privacy was one of the reasons there were challenges in implementing these programs. With COVID some of those barriers have decreased a bit, companies have seen a need to know how to protect the population. It’s important when you think about technological data and risk mitigation strategies to consider where the data is housed. Make sure you have employee consent, employee buy in. If you develop these programs with employees at the front you’re helping address how the organization is addressing this information. You have the ability to have these employees buy in; what will the organization have access to, where it’ll be housed and what it will be used for.”

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