Employers Take a Healthy Approach to Wellness

Regardless of where you stand politically and philosophically about the state of U.S. health care and the Affordable Care Act, one thing is certain: Americans are getting heavier and more prone to disease. And that is costing employers a boatload of money.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has described the current situation as “unsustainable.” In 2009, it estimates that sickness and disability cost America $39.1 billion in lost productivity. Average annual premiums for employer-sponsored coverage hit $5,049 for single coverage and $13,770 for family coverage in 2010—and it’s gone up since then.

As a result, some companies are stepping up efforts to get employees fit. They are sprinting past the idea of company-operated gyms and workout facilities and encouraging the use of fitness devices—such as Fitbit, Jawbone and the Nike+ Fuelband—to cycle up existing wellness programs.

There’s just one problem: Despite the growing popularity of smartphone apps—some estimates run as high as 40,000 apps—many people do not follow through and use the device or app for more than a brief while. Industry studies show that about one in five apps are opened only once, and most are used less than 10 times. In addition, consulting firm Endeavour Partners reports that more than half of the individuals who bought a wearable device have stopped using it.

All of this could change. “Today, employees make up the largest wellness consumer audience for brands that want to be partners in the pursuit for wellness,” says Derek Newell, CEO of Jiff, a company focused on the employer wellness space. “Employers reach 50 percent of the world’s population, but it’s a huge distribution channel that’s being ignored.”

Moving forward, Newell believes that employers must take a more proactive approach to wellness and the use of personal fitness technology. This means using IT, devices, social communities, games, incentives, gifts and other tools to motivate employees to take better care of their health and to create engaged communities.

Whether or not this approach can make a dent in the overall health care problem remains to be seen. However, the concept makes sense—and it is likely to save dollars—for organizations that embrace employee wellness in a more holistic and tech-centric way.

In the end, that’s a healthy approach for everyone.