Employers are increasingly using workplace health screenings

Updated:Jun 21,2017

Working toward wellnessEmployers are using workplace health screenings as a tool to create a culture of “wellness” – and to potentially rein in costs.

The American Heart Association has created a universal blueprint for employers to run worksite health screenings, said Dr. Ross Arena, chair of the AHA committee who produced the guideline.

The paper, published in online journal Circulation, includes an array of key points for businesses, such as: which health variables should be used to gage cardiovascular risk; what type of health professionals should be recruited to run the screenings; how to protect patient information; and the role of financial incentives.

“We recommend, based on best practices, the measures that should be included in the screenings are the ones everyone is familiar with – body weight, smoking, physical activity, blood sugar or glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure and diet,” said Arena, who is a professor and head of the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Those “Simple 7” are established, traditional biometric measures the AHA recommends as tried and true ways to measure cardiovascular risk. And health screenings at workplaces, where adults spend a lot of their time, are critical to help educate employees and improve their health.

But health screenings shouldn’t be a stand-alone offering, especially for at-risk employees, Arena said. They should be part of a comprehensive workplace wellness program. “If you just screen and leave it at that, it’s not beneficial in the long run.”

“It’s so important to reach people early,” said Laurie Whitsel, director of policy research for the AHA. “We know a healthier workforce is more productive. There's greater retention, less absenteeism. It’s more beneficial for employers’ bottom line. I think employers are concerned about their employees’ well-being, and this is one way to ensure they have the best possible health care, and that they understand their risk factors.”

Companies who hold employees accountable for their health results are required by the federal health insurance law to hold at least an annual screening. Increasingly, businesses across the country are using financial incentives in hopes they save on health benefit costs.

Companies typically either start with lower premiums and charge more for employees not participating in health programs -- or, they begin with higher premiums and give discounts to those who take part in wellness activities and checks.

A 2012 survey from the professional services company Towers Watson showed 35 percent of companies were using rewards or penalties based on smoking or tobacco-use status in 2012. Other categories of outcomes-based incentives that year were less common, with only 10 percent of companies using them.

But a recent survey from A National Business Group on Health found more than half of companies -- 53 percent -- plan to add or expand wellness program incentives in 2015. The survey found costs are starting to drop. Large employers expect health benefit costs to increase by 6.5 percent in 2015, compared with 7 percent this year.

But incentives are only the beginning.
The AHA, along with several other organizations, published a guidance paper to employers in 2012 about outcomes-based incentives. Published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, it said that long term lifestyle changes or management of risk factors need more than financial motivation.

“The key to a successful worksite wellness program capable of sustaining behavioral change is the creation of a culture and environment that supports health and wellness,” according to the report. “Within this context, the role of an extrinsic motivator— like an incentive —is to activate employees to learn about health and wellness, engage in wellness program components, and begin selected behavior changes.”

The AHA and other organizations have a trove of online tools and programs, such as Fit-Friendly Worksites and the Healthy Workplace Food and Beverage Toolkit, to help businesses go beyond screenings and create a culture of wellness.

Ross said there are lots of new programs and novel ideas companies can use to inspire employees to lead healthy lifestyles. Most of it is centered on the “Simple 7”, including such items as gyms, healthy food choices, walking trails, weight-loss programs and smoke-free workplaces.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “Different types of companies and worksites need to be flexible. We have embodied this flexibility in the new policy statement, creating a worksite health screening template that can be integrated into a broad array of settings.”