Employees' job worries trump health concerns, survey finds

NEW YORK — As employers try to engage employees in health management programs to slow healthcare cost inflation, fewer employees are placing a high priority on managing and improving their health, according to a survey released Wednesday of more than 9,000 employees at large and midsize employers, conducted by Towers Watson.

“As employees cope with a period of high financial and personal stress, the focus on improving health has taken a back seat,” stated Jeff Levin-Scherz, a physician and senior healthcare consultant at Towers Watson. “Chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, are the No. 1 driver of healthcare costs, and employers are increasingly committed to offering programs that can empower employees to manage their health and prevent the risks that lead to these diseases,” he said. “[But] our findings reveal that this strategy faces an uphill battle in the current economic environment.”

The Towers Watson survey found that there has been a significant decline in employees’ focus on health over the past two years. For example, only 59% of employee respondents believe that managing their health is a top priority, down from 69% in 2008; and 59% of respondents have taken actions in the last two years to significantly improve their health, down from 65% in 2008. Only 1-in-5 employees used employer lifestyle management programs, which is down from 26% in 2008.

However, employees increasingly are accepting of employers offering incentives/penalties for health status and wellness efforts. Two-in-3 employees (67%) would be comfortable if their health plan or employer-reduced premium costs for healthy workers and those willing to take steps to manage their illness or lower their health risks, up from 64% in 2008. Nearly half of employees (47%) would be comfortable if their health plan or employer increased the premium costs for workers unwilling to take steps to manage their illness or lower their health risks, up from 39% in 2008.

On the positive side, employee awareness of their health risks is rising, with more employees participating in health-screening programs. According to the survey, 43% of employees completed a health risk assessment, up from 26% in 2008. In addition, 31% completed a biometric screening for body mass index and cholesterol and glucose levels, up from 18% in 2008.

Employees in poor health are the least engaged in the management of their health, and those in good health are the most engaged. Compared with healthy employees, those in poor health are less optimistic about their ability to improve their health and less likely than any other group to use employer wellness programs. Only 20% of employees in poor health are using programs to manage chronic conditions. In addition, employees in very good health (23%) are nearly twice as likely to use lifestyle management programs as those in poor health (13%).

Employees in poor health are less likely to believe their company promotes a healthy work environment (36% of employees with poor health versus 52% with very good health), are less likely to believe that managing health is a top priority (44% versus 68%) and are less likely to have taken actions in the last two years to significantly improve their health (45% versus 67%).

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