Subsidizing health, wellness leads to savings

Helps identify health-risk behaviours, raise awareness and motivate change
By Laura Sullivan
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/10/2012

With health benefit costs continuing to rise, a large, aging population and an ever-increasing need to develop a resilient and engaged workforce, employer interest in employee health and wellness strategies has never been greater.

Supplementing a health benefits package with company-subsidized fitness and wellness programs gives organizations the ability to:

• identify specific behaviours impacting the individual well-being of employees and, therefore, the company

• raise awareness and increase education about employee health issues

• motivate behaviour change and reinforce healthy habits

• create an engaged employee wellness culture in which individuals take a proactive interest in and personal responsibility for their own health.

The degree to which health and wellness initiatives are subsidized by companies varies substantially but there are two areas where they are often applied — fitness programs and wellness programs.

Fitness programs

On-site employee fitness centres: These are most often partially subsidized by the employer, with the remaining amount paid by employees, often via payroll deductions.

The company usually underwrites the cost of space, capital improvements, equipment expenses and facility operating expenses, such as water, electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

Having cardiovascular and weight training equipment, group exercise classes, an opportunity for social interaction with colleagues and the presence of highly trained fitness professionals at these facilities offers employees an incredible incentive to remain — or become — physically active.

Since physical activity plays such a significant role in managing the most common and costly health-risk issues (including cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, stress abatement and weight control), it’s a great benefit to offer employees.

Off-site fitness facilities: Some companies don’t provide an on-site facility but instead have a subsidy policy to encourage and support staff to remain physically active by using the facilities of local fitness providers or facilities closer to employees’ homes.

The company usually pays for or subsidizes the membership fees at these facilities at the end of the term of the membership period.

The employee applies for the subsidy benefit by submitting proof he has purchased a membership, and the facility provides a statement the employee has a reasonable attendance rate.

This policy can also be structured so the company provides a subsidy only to approved facilities — ones the company has pre-qualified using the employer’s criteria (usually around quality programming and technical efficacy). In this case, the process of applying for the subsidy benefit is the same but only pre-approved facilities qualify.

Wellness programs

Most employee fitness programs include at least some wellness programming, such as stress management, nutrition and weight control, awareness programming or employee challenge programs to engage not only the fitness members but all other staff — including employees at more remote locations.

But most wellness programs do not include an on-site fitness facility. Non-facility wellness programs are a suitable alternative for organizations that simply cannot provide facilities.

These programs provide everything from seminars on a myriad of health topics, from team event participation to group exercise classes (such as yoga and boot camp) held in larger multi-purpose rooms at the organization.

These programs rely on a well-designed communication plan integrated into other employee programs and communications. This can be complemented by a company-branded wellness website. The degree to which wellness programs are subsidized is variable but a higher subsidy from the employer is more typical.

For some types of wellness programs, however, partial employee contributions along with the employer’s subsidy seem to increase both the perceived value of the program and ongoing participation. One example of this would be group exercise classes held at company-provided facilities.

In order for subsidized programs to really develop along with an organization’s health and wellness needs, taking a strategic approach — not a program-oriented approach — will achieve more value in the long run.

This means taking an integrated perspective, with executive buy-in and cross-organizational engagement. It means health and wellness are an organizational priority and supported by both policy and resource allocation.

Laura Sullivan is a wellness programmer at Health Systems Group in Mississauga, Ont. For more information, visit or call (905) 858-0333.

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