Healthcare losses piling up? Consider hiring a new coach.

There’s something special about calling someone “coach.” The title implies a unique bond that you just don’t find in relationships like teacher-student, mentor-mentee or even parent-child. Maybe that’s because the success of each person in the coaching relationship is entirely dependent on the other. The success of the coach is defined by the performance of those who are coached, yet that performance is impossible unless the coach first provides the necessary instruction and motivation.

That could be why so many Wisconsin businesses are turning to health coaches to encourage employees to achieve wellness goals. Having long ago recognized that employee health impacts their bottom line, many of these companies have already established wellness programs. Sadly, they aren’t seeing the level of participation they’d hoped for. When implemented as part of an employer-provided wellness program, health coaching can become a way to encourage people to reach specific health goals while increasing participation in wellness program initiatives. Your company could also see health care costs go down and productivity go up.

Who are health coaches?

Health coaches are usually medical professionals like nurses, health education specialists or mental health consultants. Their training and education often involves fitness, nutrition and behavioral health. In addition to broad clinical expertise, health coaches are versed in motivational interviewing and other behavior-change strategies that allow them to influence, inspire and incentivize those they work with in a positive way. In pop culture terms, they’re kind of like Dr. Oz-meets-Richard Simmons.

Health coaches usually contact employees directly, without the need to involve their employers. This critical buffer protects employee privacy and increases their likelihood of participation. During an initial assessment, the coach will interview the employee to evaluate their health risks, as well as the amount of support they’re likely to require.

If the employee feels comfortable with the coach and is willing to make the recommended behavioral changes, the coach will create a customized program and schedule for the employee. Over time, the two will regularly collaborate toward one or more shared goals.

How does the process start?

The health coaching process begins with an organization implementing health assessments for all employees. The company’s health insurance provider may review the results of those assessments and identify at-risk employees struggling with tobacco use, weight management issues, depression, addiction and other behavioral health concerns.

Organizations and their health plans place a premium on the privacy of the employees, not to mention compliance with HIPAA regulations. That’s why employers only receive high-level reports about the overall health of their employees, never about specific individuals. However, because the well-being of individual employees is usually a driving force behind offering health assessments in the first place, there needs to be some way to privately contact those in need of additional support.

This is where the health coach becomes a critical component of the wellness program. Provided with contact information and profiles of at-risk employees, based on the results of health assessments, a health coach can contact employees directly — without involving their employers.

This initial outreach has the potential to seem invasive to employees if it isn’t handled with appropriate tact. That’s why health coaches receive training and practice to ensure that the introductory conversation is pleasant, private and productive from start to finish.

If you’re wondering about first steps to implementing this process for your company, consider reaching out to our sponsor, Security Health Plan. They have experts on staff and in your area who can advise you based on the specific goals and current program offerings of your organization.

Why does health coaching work?

According to research published by Health Fitness, 75 percent of employees declared that a “personal touch” was important to their wellness program, but 58 percent of employees wanted that individual attention to come from outside of their organization. That’s why personal, one-to-one health coaching from a third-party professional can be a significant factor influencing the success of a wellness program.

It’s human nature to assume that our challenges in life are unique. So when someone encounters general advice on health that prescribes one-size-fits-all recommendations for behavioral change, it can easily be written off as irrelevant to that individual’s experience and situation. In contrast, health coaches dive deep into the distinctive traits that define and influence an individual’s state of well-being. They are trained and practiced at techniques that help people feel understood and validated. The employees they coach are more likely to invest in the behavior changes they suggest because they perceive them as specific to their challenges.

The very nature of human motivation is another factor that contributes to the success of a health coaching program. Is the source of motivation external or intrinsic? Many companies offer external incentives to employees who participate in a particular wellness program. For instance, they may provide prizes or financial rewards to employees who engage in weight loss or tobacco cessation courses.

External incentives like these do tend to spike participation rates in employee wellness programs, but those spikes are typically very short-lived. This is probably because participants who are motivated by external incentives have a tendency to revert to their more long-held behaviors once the incentive is removed from the equation.

Intrinsic motivation typically earns more permanent results because it gets to the very root of human desire. By basing persuasive appeals on what the individual wants or cares about most, health coaches start with the end in mind and frame the process of behavioral change as the means to that end.

An individual who is battling obesity may not be motivated by the notion of weight loss itself; but may instead have strong, related motivations that exist at a deeper level. Perhaps he or she wants to feel more attractive, experience less joint pain or coach a child’s soccer team without quickly feeling fatigued.

A skilled health coach can help that individual establish the connection between a goal — having the energy to coach, and the prescribed changes — dietary restrictions and exercise. Bringing a deeply-rooted, emotionally-based objective to the surface creates intrinsic motivation, which increases the likelihood of successful long-term behavioral change.

That shouldn’t suggest that there’s no room for incentives in wellness programs. Best practices recommend offering incentives alongside the one-on-one support a health coach can provide. The incentives can effectively boost initial participation in a program, while the introduction of a health coach can provide motivation and guidance to promote enduring adoption of positive behavior change.

How are companies utilizing health coaches?

First and foremost, companies are turning to health coaches to boost participation in their wellness programs. A recent Gallup poll showed that among organizations offering a wellness program, only 24 percent of employees actually take advantage of this resource.

Health coaches are trained to encourage employee participation in wellness programs through a variety of motivational interview techniques. They’re knowledgeable about the specific resources that are available within a given program. They can provide tailored advice, directing individuals toward the components of a wellness plan that are most likely to prove beneficial to their desired outcomes.

Here’s the best part — it really seems to work. According to WebMD Health Services, seven of 10 employees who completed a health coach program were satisfied with their employer’s wellness program and would recommend health coaching to other employees. Their participation ended up saving their companies money. On average, participants who worked with a health coach reduced their health-related expenses by more than $500 per person, per year.

In addition to the direct impact coaches have on participation, they can also help shape evolving programs by providing important feedback that otherwise goes unspoken. Employees may not feel comfortable criticizing their employer’s benefit offerings, no matter how constructive their input may be. They may be more open to sharing candid opinions with a trusted professional who represents an unbiased third party. In this way, health coaches may become privy to perceived shortcomings that limit program participation.

Is your company ready for a health coach?

If you’re wondering whether a health coach can help your company, look first to your bottom line. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that each employee who smokes will cost their employer $1,897 annually. The same report states that an employee with obesity creates yearly medical costs of $1,429 per person, compared to co-workers who fall within a healthier weight range. These are just two of the many at-risk conditions a health coach can help employees overcome.

Next, consider the human benefit. Health coaches can help your employees improve their physical, emotional and mental wellness by encouraging long-term, positive behavioral change. Happy, healthy employees tend to be productive employees, which underscores the bottom-line impact of adding health coaches to a wellness program.

Finally, think about the value health coaches can offer your company as a retention tool. When you’re competing for top talent in your industry, it’s critical that your benefits distinguish themselves in ways that matter to employees. Health coaches fit that bill by providing employees with access to individualized attention that remains private from their employers.

If you’re still on the fence about whether adding health coaching to your wellness program is the right move for your organization, you can reach out to our sponsor for additional insights and resources. Security Health Plan works with Wisconsin businesses to provide comprehensive healthcare benefits, including wellness programs with health coaching, and has representatives that would be happy to consult with you.

The opportunity to call someone “coach” doesn’t end when the cleats get packed away. Thanks to the burgeoning popularity of health coaches in the workplace, companies can offer their employees the chance to improve measurable health outcomes with individual attention and motivation. In the process, they’ll improve their benefit offerings and strengthen their bottom line.