Healthways CEO on Why Employers Should Value Wellness More Than Health Costs

Companies need to move beyond healthcare costs to focus more on boosting the well-being of their employees, according to Healthways chief executive officer Ben Leedle.

Minimizing health risks and investing in healthy employees has a $1.50 return on investment for every dollar spent, Leedle said, because it improves employee engagement, productivity, and performance.

Leedle was the keynote speaker at the Dallas-Fort Worth Business Group on Health’s annual value-based benefits and wellness forum Thursday at the Westin Galleria in Dallas.

Healthways, based in Franklin, Tenn., and Texas Health Resources announced a 10-year agreement in April to help physicians analyze and address patient health behavior.

“Healthier people cost less and perform better at work, play and school. It is simple and straightforward: Find the people who are healthy and keep them there,” Leedle said.

Healthways and Gallup created a Well-Being Index that assesses Americans’ health daily. The index measures emotional and physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, healthcare access and how they evaluate their lives. The effort has produced 1.5 million completed surveys since 2008.

Leedle said there is an 85 percent performance difference between organizations with high well-being and low well-being scores.

Mitigating health risks builds value over time. For example, an employee with a normal body weight saves company $244 in the first year, and $1,401 in the fifth year—for a total savings of $4,004 in a five-year period, Leedle said.

“That is the value of eliminating health risks,” he said. “The problem is not health costs. It’s the causes. Once the (disease occurs), it’s very difficult to make a change.”

“Well-being is a proxy for whether people show up and do what you want them to do. For 1 out of 5 employees, businesses would be better off putting them in rooms with magazines and televisions all day. When they interact with customers and other employees, bad things happen,” he said.

Leedle said well-being scores translate into odds of job performance and health events. For example, those with high well-being have a 42 percent change of being a high performer, compared with 20 percent of those with low well-being. Similarly, high-well being employees have an 8 percent chance of being absent more than once a month, compared with 40 percent for low well-being employees.

He cited a Fortune 50 company that was able to increase the number of employees with high well-being from 41 percent to 52 percent in a Healthways pilot project. Leedle said the estimated impact was more than 18,000 high-performing employees and more than 21,000 fewer employees with one or more unscheduled absences.

Jon Scholl, THR chief strategy officer, pointed out that Dallas-Fort Worth has higher rates of obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol than the national average, and that health-related issues cost DFW businesses $17 billion annually.

Scholl said primary-care physicians see 25-30 patients in 10-minute intervals during an average day.  The goal, he said, is to stratify patients based on care complexity so physicians can take care of the most critical cases and have other clinicians handle the rest.

Steve Jacob is editor of D Healthcare Daily and author of the Health Care in 2020: Where Uncertain Reform, Bad Habits, Too Few Doctors and Skyrocketing Costs Are Taking Us. He can be reached at steve.jacob@dmagazine.com.

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