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More than twice as many employers than 10 years ago are planning to increase investments in employee health and wellness

Since 2016, the proportion of employers using health-related mobile apps has risen by 46%.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

More than 80% of employers said they are planning to increase their health and wellness budgets this year, more than double compared to 2009 (34%), according to the 10th annual Optum Wellness in the Workplace study.

The study also found that employers are increasingly embracing digital technology to engage workers in health and well-being programs. Since 2016, the proportion of employers using health-related mobile apps rose by 46%, with now close to three-quarters of respondents reporting that the apps helped increase employee participation.

Also, the number of employers reporting that their employee wellness programs include the use of fitness or activity devices increased by nearly 40% over the same time period, with 71% of employers reporting successful engagement by their employees.

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According to Seth Serxner, chief health officer at Optum, employers' interest in wellness programs enabled by the latest digital technologies has increased dramatically -- and the reasons for this have evolved, with employers largely maintaining that these initiatives are as important in attracting and retaining employees as addressing healthcare costs.

This is demonstrated in the latest survey findings, with more than twice as many employers responding that workplace well-being programs are more important to their employee benefits mix than they were a decade ago (33% in 2009, 77% in 2018). While the percentage of employers saying they offer wellness programs to reduce long-term healthcare costs has stayed relatively steady over the last 10 years (around 80%), other factors are now viewed as equally important by employers.

For example, 79% say they now offer wellness programs to improve absenteeism/presenteeism; 78% use the programs to attract and retain talent; and 76% say they use wellness programs to improve and maintain employee morale.


This year, the Optum study also asked employers about additional topics related to health and wellness programs that may indicate areas of emerging interest.

Take mental and behavioral health, for instance. It's top-of-mind for many. Eighty-four percent of employers are concerned about substance use disorder. Nearly 90% of employers say they're planning to address stigma surrounding mental health; and a similar number are concerned about the level of access to behavioral health services.

In addition to behavioral health, 84% of employers plan to increase investments in women's health services. The largest increases from 2016 to 2018 include programs addressing fertility, up 35 percentage points, and neonatal and first year of life, both up 27 percentage points.

Telemedicine was one of the fastest-growing health programs adopted by employers, with the proportion of employers reporting its usage increasing 171% since 2014.


If employers want wellness programs to reduce healthcare costs and utilization, it may behoove them to make such programs long-term. That's because, in a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that while such wellness programs are fairly effective at promoting healthy behaviors, there's little to no impact on healthcare costs.

Even the positive health effects observed in participating employees were less than desired, with health behaviors improving over a short period of time but little impact shown on clinical measures of health, including blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index.

The good news is that there were some positive health behaviors observed in the study participants, though not as much as hoped. Work sites with wellness programs saw employees engage in regular exercise at an 8.3 percent higher rate than at other work sites, and wellness program participants also actively managed their weight at a 13.6 percent higher rate.

Twitter: @JELagasse

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