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It's that time of year again, and nearly every employer is focused on health plan renewals for 2017. In addition to your health care plan, how will you approach employee wellness and mindfulness in the New Year?

I've walked numerous clients through their organization's wellness program "resolutions," and along the way I've developed a set of core questions that are key to developing a budget-friendly, strategic and effective plan.

Here are five questions about wellness every company should answer heading into the next year.

1) Do we have an operating plan?

As with any business strategy, start with the end in mind. What are your goals for this program? Is it to create a more supportive environment, provide health education, improve health or control costs?

Answering these questions can help you decide on a program framework, outline the resources needed and estimate the budget required to write your operating plan.

I've identified four main maturity models for wellness that you can use to guide your operating plan: 1) Awareness, 2) Activity, 3) Action and 4) Accountability. Oftentimes, I see companies aiming for "Accountability" results (linking specific health risks to dollars in the form of insurance premiums), but with an "Awareness"-level program (simply promoting the current resources your organization has surrounding health and wellness). Understanding how these models are structured, and what results each level provides will help you set realistic expectations.

2) Who's in charge?

The responsibility of wellness programs commonly falls on Human Resources. The problem? Most HR teams already have a full plate and may not have the expertise to develop and manage a program.

To avoid confusion and stress, determine who's in charge, whether or not they have time and if the time allotted is sufficient enough to meet the goals of the program. If not, you may want to consider adjusting the program goals or outsourcing some or all of your program management efforts.

3) How will we measure success?

You can evaluate the effectiveness of a program from one annual health plan renewal to the next, but you need a baseline. Most companies start small and simply measure participation; others measure health or satisfaction changes via a health assessment or job retention. Regardless of what goals you have set, make sure you have data to demonstrate the goals' rationale, so you can measure progress and success.

Typically, if you're not achieving more than 50 percent participation in a program, you are missing the employees who need the most help. You may want to consider how to increase participation (as a side note, "incentives" like a FitBit are not always the best approach). Your program may just need more time to educate the importance of the initiative and how employees and the employer both benefit from its rollout. Remember, a confused mind usually says, “No."

4) Do we have vendors or partners?

There are lots of wellness vendors out there providing all kinds of services. Some have health risk assessment tools and online wellness challenge platforms, while others include health coaching programs and on-site biometric screening events.

Now, are these just "vendors," or are they real partners? The difference is crucial: A vendor is only interested in your check, while a partner has a vested interest in meeting the goals of your program. A simple way to ensure you have partners is creating a tiered pricing model based on performance.

A common oversight is that program participation is not measured against program costs. So what is the actual cost per participant? And is that number acceptable? If you're paying $3.00 per employee per month (PEPM) and you have 20 percent of your employees participating, then your cost is actually $15.00 per participant per month. If employees are participating every other month, your cost is now $30.00 per participant. Be weary of “PEPM" pricing models, because they often do not speak to utilization. At the end of the day, when you pay for “PEPM" programs, the vendor is paid a set amount, regardless of their success.

5) How will we fund the wellness program?

There are many ways to get creative when it comes to funding wellness programs today, and it doesn't always have to be out of the employer's pocket. I see insurance companies stepping in and providing annual “wellness credits," benefit consultants embedding wellness into the overall healthcare budget and even new private exchanges embedding free wellness services for their members. Be resourceful and don't let your organizations wellness budget be the sole dictator of your program's depth.

Bottom line, if you come to the table with a solid plan , someone in charge to keep it on track, baseline data for future evaluation and partners working with you instead of vendors working for you, then you will have an “investment summary" ready to present as a business case—whether internally or externally—for the next year of your worksite wellness program.

Cheers to a successful year!

Photo: Twenty20