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Nowadays, every company states they have an employee wellness program, but how do you really define one from the next, and is it even important to know?

To answer the first question, research suggests there are four main models for wellness programs out there—let's classify them as "levels" one through four. And to the latter question: well, yes, it does matter. Classifying your wellness program model is extremely important, because it helps you align your desired outcomes with what you're actually implementing.

Below is the structure of each wellness program model and the outcomes you can anticipate from them. Perhaps you'll decide you need to move up a step—or maybe you'll breathe a sigh of relief, because you're achieving precisely what you should be.

The Four A's

I call the four employee wellness program models "The Four A's": 1) Awareness, 2) Activity, 3) Action and 4) Accountability.

1) Awareness

When it comes to this "level one" program option, the focus is simply on promoting the current resources your organization has surrounding health and wellness. Perhaps you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or resources from your health plan, such as free telephonic Health Coaching or an online wellness portal with health trackers.

Awareness is a great place to start with corporate wellness, because it's the least invasive of all program models. There are no set expectations of improving health or changing behaviors, let alone decreasing healthcare costs. At this stage, participation is 100 percent voluntary. No pressure, no incentives and no major tracking or evaluation—just an introduction to get employees excited about the possibility of better health.

2) Activity

At this phase, you'll focus your efforts on your employees physically doing something. This is the most common phase: Think about wellness challenges, biometric screenings, health risk assessments, walking groups and even incentive plans.

The goal here is to get employees (and hopefully spouses) doing something in order to inspire and form new healthy habits. Chances are, you may think about tying a handful of activities to your health benefits, such allowing plan members to earn discounts off their premiums or offering awards.

At this level, don't expect major health improvements across the board. That's not really what it is intended for. Embrace this level of programming to create that fun, supportive work environment. Typically, you will see about 20 to 40 percent of your group participating in the various initiatives.

3) Action

This level is focused on actively improving your workforce's health by connecting them to specific programs based on their health status.

For instance, if you have a segment of workers that smoke, you'll want to enroll them into a smoking cessation program or course. You may want to have a third party roll out this programming, since it does entail knowing your employees' personal health information. (As an employer, keeping an arm's length from anything related to HIPAA is always a smart move.)

The true differentiator of action-based wellness programming is the focus on specific health improvement programs for target audiences, versus having voluntary or elective initiatives like an awareness or activity-based program. When the actions are tied to benefits, we see a big jump in participation up to 80 percent. The main key to success? Promoting the program as an opportunity to improve future health—not as a penalty for existing health issues.

4) Accountability

This model is not intended for companies just tipping their toe in the water, and it's also not for every organization.

This model ties specific health risks to dollars in the form of insurance premiums. The healthier you are, the less you pay. However, if you start with this approach, chances are your employees will take it the wrong way: They will think they're being punished, disrespected, unappreciated or worse, they'll think your organization only cares about the money you'll save.

A "level four" accountability program should be in your operating plan for year three or beyond, after employees are familiar with your wellness programming. In fact, we've worked with employers who planned an accountability-based program on a three-year timeline, but ended up receiving such good traction during the first two years, "accountability" was no longer necessary.

Focus on the End Goal

The old saying "start with the end in mind" is surprisingly applicable in workplace wellness. I always offer clients at my consulting firm Kadalyst two pieces of advice: First, plan out your wellness program over multiple years, which forces you to think of ways to take it to the next level year over year, and second, be clear about your objectives. If your organization's goal is just to have fun activities for employees to participate in and create that "culture of health," then a level one or two will work great. If you're looking to make a real impact on employees' health, then plan on eventually reaching level three or four.

If you position your wellness program correctly, you can truly make a difference in the majority of your employees' lives.

Photo: Creative Commons