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Should You Rely On The Health Risk Assessment For Corporate Wellness Planning?

Posted May 25 2011 12:00am
Although Health Risk Assessments (HRA’s) are often the first step when implementing a corporate wellness program, recent studies suggest that in some cases, it might be best to skip the HRA completely and put the company’s money to better use elsewhere. For example, directly into wellness initiatives.

In the past, the wellness community has voiced support for the HRA as a useful collection tool for foundational health data. These assessments can provide a baseline report of general health issues within a company's employee population, and effectively help employers tailor benefits to their population. For example, if the HRA's reveal that 40% of employees smoke, a smoking cessation program might be a productive offering within that work environment. Or, if the HRA data show that many employees engage in regular physical activity but want to move more during the workday, the employer might institute more walking meetings, onsite fitness classes, or even host a bike-to-work day. In this way, the HRA helps illustrate company-specific problem areas and serves as a guide for creating a wellness program.

Unfortunately, emerging data suggest that HRA completion remains low (although slightly higher when linked to incentives) and companies often spend more money than necessary creating the assessment and offering incentives for survey participation, only to end up with aggregate results that offer little real value.

The HRA process is flawed in several ways. First, it is a self-reporting system. Many employees minimize or underreport certain habits (e.g., smoking, alcohol consumption, and time spent sitting) and overestimate the amount of time spent exercising and their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables. Or, they lie. Despite privacy laws, many employees believe employers will or might use the data to the detriment of the employee.

Second, responses can vary tremendously depending on circumstances. Employees are required to recall behaviors that can often be difficult to remember immediately. If a respondent happens to start the day with a power walk and oatmeal for breakfast, they might overestimate their healthy behaviors in general, extrapolating to every day of the week when, in fact, their behavior is generally unhealthy. There is a lot of room for reporting error.

Finally, there are readily accessible national data illustrating that 75% of all chronic disease can be prevented or delayed by adopting healthier lifestyles. This information alone should be enough to nudge employers into offering a comprehensive wellness program for their employees.

Remember, an HRA can still be a valuable tool to gather information about employees. Many employers benefit from a company-specific report, but in the end, an emphasis should be placed on biometric screenings (to gauge employee health) and lifestyle changes based on "The Big Three": diet, exercise, and smoking cessation. Regardless of the role of the HRA, every employee can benefit from a wellness program focused on encouraging healthy behaviors.
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