Well City documents outcomes in workplace wellness

Who would think that Milwaukee, with its image of cheese, beer and brats, could achieve a designation of being one of the healthiest cities in America? On March 18, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, along with local business leaders, announced that Milwaukee had been awarded the designation of Well City USA.

Sponsored by the Wellness Council of America, Well City USA is an initiative designed to engage entire business communities in improving the health and well-being of their workforce. The primary requirement for achieving Well City USA designation is that 20 percent of any community’s working population must be employed by companies that have achieved Well Workplace designation.

Milwaukee began the process in 2006 under the leadership of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the City of Milwaukee, and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. In 2007, the initiative was officially launched. Following a three-year process in which more than 40 area employers joined the effort, Milwaukee reached its goal of becoming a Well City USA.
A celebration event is planned for Tuesday, April 13, from 7:30 to 9 a.m. at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
While achieving Well City USA designation was a monumental step, Well City Milwaukee leaders recognized that an important part of the process was to demonstrate the impact of workplace wellness on the health of the workforce and the business community’s bottom line.
Thus, the next step was to undertake a process of evaluation to measure and document program outcomes. Five participating Well City employers representing diverse size and business sector were recruited to serve as case study examples and the process of gathering and analyzing data began.
“While there are studies that validate the efficacy of workplace wellness, we knew we needed local evidence to make a solid case,” said Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. “Well City Milwaukee and several of our exemplary member employers have really stepped up and delivered.”

What we learned about program evaluation

Although program evaluation is a criterion for achievement of the WELCOA Well Workplace designation, it is a challenging process for most organizations; and it was no different for Well City participants. Within the group of employers studied, all had different evaluation strategies and different priorities in terms of what they wanted to measure and where they wanted to see impact and outcomes. Some of the big picture metrics included analysis of group health risks, health plan costs, productivity, retention, worker’s compensation, and disability claims. Other measurements included program participation, employee satisfaction, changes in health behaviors and impact on organizational culture.
Through the Well Workplace application process, companies learned that having a well-defined evaluation strategy requires:
  • Allocation of time and resources.
  • Defining your metrics.
  • Establishing baseline data.
  • Using consistent methodology.
  • Ongoing measurement & tracking.

While all of the case study participants measured, analyzed and reported year-to-year changes in health status, for some, a system to track health costs savings had not yet been put in place. A conclusion of the study was that we must establish comprehensive program evaluation as a best practice in the community. This may be the next frontier for the Well City Milwaukee Community.

“Program evaluation can be intimidating,” says Janet McMahon, executive director of Well City Milwaukee. So as Well City Milwaukee moves forward, we will ramp up our level of support and education around evaluation for our members.”
ROI evaluation requires a commitment to methodically track several key indicators, including annual health cost data, medical claims utilization, health plan administration costs, and wellness program expenses. Although the most challenging area of program evaluation for case study participants was cost benefit analysis, the case study project was able to document reduced health care costs and cost savings below the national average. Other documented outcomes included:
Improvements in health risk status.
  • Reduction in work injury.
  • Reduced medical expenses.
  • Improvements in productivity.
  • Increased medical consumerism.
  • Increases in participation.
  • Positive changes in health behavior.
An inspiring outcome documented in all of the case studies was the positive impact of workplace wellness on the culture of the organization.
“It has been interesting to learn that while employers often begin a program out of a motivation to cut cost, they get hooked on workplace wellness because it is the right thing to do,” said Dick Tillmar, Well City Milwaukee co-chair.
All of the studied organizations had strong senior leadership support. Company leaders felt that wellness was not only fiscally wise, it was equally important to show employees that they are valued; that their health and wellbeing and that of their families are important to the organization.

Case study observations and conclusions

There is no absolute standard on what constitutes “acceptable” outcomes and impact measurement. Member employers have different priorities in where they want to see impact and outcomes. That being said, all participating companies documented and reported positive returns from their workplace wellness programs.
Although health cost savings was a primary reason for most organizations to begin wellness initiatives, systems or measures to track economic outcomes had not always been put in place.
Without exception, all participating companies measured and saw improvements in aggregate health status, as documented in improvements in overall wellness score, positive shifts in health risk profile, and reduction in the number and severity of work injury.
Incentives linked to health insurance premiums and/or strong financial incentives significantly increased participation in Health Risk Assessments and health screenings.
Participation in intervention specific activities increased with program longevity, and as wellness was integrated into the company culture.
Interest surveys and culture audits indicate that most employees value wellness programs and activities. Results show that employees appreciate the support provided by their employer in making healthy lifestyle changes and see workplace wellness as a benefit.
Join us on April 13 to celebrate the achievement of Well City USA designation and to recognize the employers, sponsors and partners who helped make this happen. For more information, visit www.mmac.org/calendar.

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