U.S. Hospital Employee Wellness Strategies Fall Behind Other Industries

U.S. hospitals are spending more on healthcare than other U.S. employers. But their greater investment fails to yield a healthier or better-performing workforce. On the contrary, as Towers Watson research shows, hospital workers report more health conditions and rate their employers relatively poorly on wellness efforts. Moreover, their health issues have a direct impact on patient care and satisfaction.

It's time for hospitals to act.

Defining the problem
Last year, as part of Towers Watson's 2012 Global Workforce Study, which examines attitudes and perceptions of more than 32,000 workers around the world, we surveyed 1,055 hospital employees in the U.S. The survey asked respondents to self-report a range of health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes and unhealthy cholesterol levels. We found that U.S. hospital employees reported, on average, 15 percent more health conditions than the U.S. workforce overall. In addition, 19 percent of U.S. hospital employees said they were managing two or more health conditions, compared with 13 percent of U.S. workers overall. These differences are statistically significant. Towers Watson's findings are consistent with a Thomson Reuters analysis showing that hospital workers are nearly 9 percent more likely than the U.S. workforce overall to be diagnosed with chronic medical conditions. An unhealthy workforce is also a costly workforce. A 2012 joint Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health survey indicates that healthcare costs for hospital employees are 13 percent higher than the overall U.S. workforce. 

Ironically, given the fact that hospitals have the resources and experience to manage wellness, the hospital workers in our Global Workforce Study also said their employers fell short in this area. Fewer than half of the U.S. hospital employees said their employer supported their health and well-being. Among other specific findings:

  • Only 46 percent of U.S. hospital workers agreed that their organization promotes a healthy work environment, compared with 69 percent of U.S. workers overall.
  • Barely one-third (35 percent) of U.S. hospital workers said that current wellness programs actually encouraged a healthier lifestyle, compared with nearly half (48 percent) of all U.S. workers.
  • Only 40 percent of U.S. hospital workers agreed that their organization rewards employees for living a healthy lifestyle, compared with 55 percent of U.S. workers overall.

Hospitals that miss the mark on health and wellness face some potentially serious consequences. One is a less effective value proposition for new employees. As part of the Global Workforce Study, we asked respondents to rate the top five (out of 27) elements of the workplace that would attract them to a job. U.S. hospital workers put healthcare/wellness benefits in third place. By comparison, U.S. workers broadly ranked healthcare and wellness seventh in importance. Moreover, clerical staff in U.S. hospitals ranked this workplace attribute first of all possible reasons to join an employer.

Of even greater concern is the impact on performance. In research conducted for specific hospital clients, we found that units that manage employee wellness poorly scored worse on a range of performance measures than units with more effective wellness management. In one study of 2,000 units in a U.S. healthcare organization, those with particularly unfavorable employee opinions of leaders' efforts to address health (including recognizing those who practice healthy behaviors and informing employees of progress toward health goals) had worse performance outcomes than units with more favorable employee views. Specifically, relative to units with top employee opinion scores, units with the poorest scores had:

  • 1.8 times higher accident rates
  • 1.3 times more staff days absent
  • 5.9 times higher bloodstream infection rates
  • 5 percent lower scores on patient satisfaction

Addressing the problem
Hospitals can take a first step toward meeting employees' health and wellness needs in three ways.

First, begin to segment the workforce into affinity groups, based on logical factors like nature of the job, required hours, stress levels and so on. This allows a hospital to tailor wellness and disease management programs to key employee segments, lifestyles and work shifts. For example, one employee group that works long, pressure-filled hours in numerous locations across a hospital may take advantage of extended hours at a fitness center or free sessions with a personal trainer. By contrast, another group working long hours and tied to a specific office location might prefer more low-calorie meal offerings in the cafeteria to gym access.

Second, revisit the design of employee benefit programs and adopt tactics being applied in other organizations. This might include efforts like supporting flexible scheduling to facilitate participation in health management programs and activities. Or using key influencers to communicate through established networks. Or integrating multiple vendors to improve delivery of health messages.

Last, consider encouraging or even requiring employees to use the hospital's systems or facilities. Greater domestic usage can reduce costs and lessen reliance on competitors, but must be balanced with employee privacy concerns. Often, an audit of residential patterns and usage among employees can yield information essential to designing an effective plan to optimize domestic use.

The costs of poor wellness management are real, but so are the opportunities to address hospital employee concerns, promoting enhanced wellness and lowering costs in an often cash-strapped business sector.

Patrick Kulesa is the global research director at Towers Watson. He can be reached at (212)-309-3746 or at patrick.kulesa@towerswatson.com.

More Articles on Employee Wellness:

Developing a Workforce Strategy for Patient-Centered Care: 6 Key Steps
Taking Care of Employees: 5 Trends on Hospital Benefit Plans

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