Employee wellness programs have greatly evolved with our understanding of what constitutes total wellness for an individual. To be in “good health” no longer assumes only physical health, but the holistic portrait of an individual, including mental and behavioral health.

Coinciding with this newer, more inclusive understanding of individual health, is a surge in companies adopting wellness programs for their employees. The industry grew from $1B in 2011 to $6.8B only five years later, and in 2017 almost a quarter of employers increased their wellness offerings, wrote the Los Angeles Times. Many of these programs are shifting their scope to better support employee across the wider spectrum of health, whether that’s support for a person at risk for diabetes or someone struggling with addiction or mental illness.

Despite this broader lens, there is still debate as to the efficacy of workplace wellness programs, some recent research suggesting that they aren’t exactly living up to the hype.

Could a more tailored approach that focuses on patient engagement and support hold the key to more effective disease prevention and management for employees enrolled in these programs? Some innovative approaches are doing just that.

Worker health, a top priority

Americans spend a lot of time at work. Because of this, it can be argued that employers have a responsibility to ensure their employees have the resources they need to manage their health successfully. At the very least, employees need to be in good health to perform their work to the best of their ability- how can employers help them achieve this?

MobiHealthNews reported last year that “employee wellbeing and engagement programs are becoming more of a top priority for employers” according to a survey conducted by Virgin Pulse. The survey found, of the 600 human resources and benefits leaders polled, 78 percent believe wellbeing is a key component of their business strategy, 87 percent currently or plan to invest in employee wellbeing, and 97 percent feel that wellbeing positively influence engagement.

While a wide consensus in support of a healthy workforce (and employers understanding that a well-designed wellness program is a pathway to achieve this) is encouraging, figuring out the ingredients needed to make those programs effective can be challenging.

The survey also revealed that it’s not always clear to companies how to successfully integrate a wellness program into a work culture and what type of program they should even offer employees. Tellingly, not many companies who participated in the survey actually had a cohesive program in place.

Using technology to elevate wellness programs

A Forbes piece from last year predicted that the number of companies with wellness programs will continue to grow and that, “With wellness programs on the rise, creativity and innovation are flourishing to keep employee wellness initiatives fresh and exciting.”

As the efficacy debate indicates, an employer simply offering a wellness program isn’t enough. Providing a program that will engage, motivate, and educate employees, capture data, track and monitor clinical outcomes, and inspire lifelong behavioral change is key—and the value which digital health provides to programs.

For example Omada’s weightloss program works with employers to identify only the employees who are most at-risk of developing a chronic condition like type 2 diabetes or heart disease. To ensure accountability and improved outcomes, the employer only pays Omada if an employee actually enrolls in the program and achieves results. Patients are given a connected wireless scale and paired with a health coach best suited for them (based on data the patient inputs) who provide ongoing support and guidance throughout the program. Patients can also interact with peer groups if they choose for additional support and motivation.

Lyra Health is another digital health company making strides in employee wellness, in this case, by accessing behavioral health care services for employers and their employees. Despite a growing prevalence of mental illness in the U.S., access to quality behavioral health care is exceptionally difficult to navigate.  Lyra’s technology eases the burden for patients who need access to care by matching them with a high-quality mental health care provider. The care is immediate and highly personalized.

Additionally, people suffering from behavioral health care issues often face stigma, especially in the workplace, which can be a barrier to care. One company aiming to change that is Joyable, a service employers can offer their employees who suffer from anxiety or depression. Employees have access to a trained coach who can work with them via text, email, or over the phone, at anytime, from any location opening up access to treatment in a way that’s most comfortable for the patient.

Ongoing support and a human touch, such as what Omada and Joyable offer, ensure employees meet their health goals while providing comfort.

Investing in employee health

When illness goes unaddressed in the workplace, the impact on employers can be significant.

Preventable chronic conditions are a major contributor to the costs of insurance premiums and employee medical claims, which are at an all-time high and continue to rise. Employers also pay a high price in terms of lost productivity from employee illness,” according to the CDC. Additionally, “Full-time workers who are overweight or obese and have other chronic health problems miss about 450 million more days of work each year than healthy workers. The result is an estimated cost of more than $153 billion in lost productivity each year.” It’s reported that serious mental illness costs the US $193.2 billion in lost wages.

With chronic disease on the rise and people spending such large amounts of time at work, the potential for a workplace wellness program to actually improve employee health and reduce health care costs for employers is big. Provided that program is well designed with the patient at the center, real outcomes for patients (and employers) will become a reality.