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Wellness and financial success may be the ‘money pill’ investors, plan sponsors seek

By Lisa Gillespie - EmployeeBenefit News
September 27, 2011

Call it the holy grail, silver bullet or magic pill, but the universal goal of benefits professionals is finding a way to lower costs while maintaining employee engagement. Ron Leopold, vice president medical director for MetLife, says the magic ingredients in the “money pill” may be investments in helping employees find physical and fiscal success.

"You invest in wellness and you lower morbidity, which translates to lower costs today and tomorrow and you increase productivity," Leopold said Monday at the 24th Annual Benefits Forum & Expo in Dallas. Citing MetLife’s 9th annual Employee Benefits Trend Study — which found 50% of medical costs could be changed by employee behavior and lifestyle — Leopold acknowledged that 50% of those costs are hardwired and are the result of uncontrollable factors, but “there's a part that is driven by what people do and don't do.”

That 50% in controllable costs is where wellness programs can make a difference, but, Leopold added that an aging workforce combined with delayed retirement create challenges.

"We've always known that as we age, we're dealing with more medical risk, which means that the aging workforce is going to be a greater phenomenon, which means that the folks that are today 59 won't leave for another 15 years or so," he said. The rate of chronic conditions doubles between age 50 and 60. It's good news from a productivity perspective because older workers are known to be some of the most reliable and diligent workers, "but the risks of an aging workforce contracting many of the chronic conditions we're trying to make a difference in will only increase going forward."

Wellness programs may be a way to decrease that 50% in sickness and disease that come from personal choices—including financial ones. As such, 59% of employers say that wellness programs are a very effective way to reduce medical costs, but also should be paired with education on achieving financial well-being.

"There is a yin-yang relationship between health and financial," Leopold said. "People who are financially secure are in a better position to maintain better health and people who are not financially secure face greater obstacles in terms of getting healthy and getting health care coverage."

He added that when an employee is stressed over financial issues, there's a higher chance of morbidity.

"If you know your people, you know folks are facing mounting financial problems," he said. This leads to increased rates of absenteeism and presenteeism. "Our people are on the job, but they're more likely to be distracted and focused on things away from work."

Fifty-two percent of employers are interested in advice and guidance through their employer on how to address the causes of financial stress, MetLife found, while 56% of employees, across all age groups, are interested in receiving help with budgeting and financial education.

"It's not just the older workers, but the Gen Xers—these are kids that are saddled with college debt and they are making money but it's going toward debt," Leopold told attendees. Because of it, he explained, a 35-year-old in 10 years will be much more financially savvy than 40 years ago. Out of necessity and without the "third" leg of financial stability from the government, the weight will fall on both the individual and the employer.

"As we look to the future, employees will increasingly look to their employer as a remedy far more than they used to," he said.