Published in Health Care

Crystal Ball 2019 Outlook Q&A: Toni Sperlbaum, Health Plan Advocate

BY Sunday, December 23, 2018 04:01pm

The past year confirmed to Toni Sperlbaum that workplace wellness is beginning to move in a new direction. Rather than focus on diet, exercise, and financial incentives for increasing participation and progress toward health goals, some employer wellness programs locally now take a broader approach. They encompass mental health, financial well-being and intrinsic motivation to encourage employees to maintain or improve their health, said Sperlbaum, the vice president of wellness at Health Plan Advocate in Grand Rapids. She expects that trend to pick up, albeit slowly, in West Michigan during the next year.

Where do you see the wellness movement going in 2019?

Toni Sperlbaum COURTESY PHOTO

Wellness on a more national trend that I’ve been seeing for years, and that I haven’t seen start to enter here until the last six months or so, is moving away from financial incentives and more toward intrinsic motivation, or really helping employees see the benefits of being healthier. They have more energy, they’re sick (less), they’re feeling stronger, and letting that serve as the reward. Studies show intrinsic motivation has better long-term results for health-risk reduction and lifestyle changes than even financial gains or tangible gains.

What are the challenges of doing that?

While this sounds great, and as an employer, ‘Oh, good. I don’t have to give out financial incentives,’ it’s a really tough stone to move. The big problem with it is it takes a lot of buy-in as an organization to really integrate into their culture versus what we’re seeing now, which is a once-a-year testing period, slap on a surcharge, and ‘get better next year.’ They really have to train their leaders, and they have to have grassroots efforts of wellness campaigns and to run programming that includes spouses and families to cover all of the bases for that to happen effectively. It’s a slow-moving process.

Why has West Michigan not picked up on this trend as fast as the rest of the nation?

I really think it’s just the development of the industry and there are just stronger, more national leaders out there who are making their way across the country and more people are getting out to a lot of different conferences. It’s just learning from each other.

We heard so much in 2018 about the tight labor market and how creating a great culture within a company helps to attract and retain talent. Is that playing into this at all?

It’s just being seen as an additional benefit. Employees more and more are looking for all of the extras and all of the additives, and wellness is going beyond insurance costs. It’s being used as a retention tool. It’s being used as a benefit to flaunt. We’re kind of seeing that employers are trying to implement wellness for those reasons, and for the reasons that it’s the right thing to do. Employees spend as much time at work (as they do at home), and it’s almost (employers’) responsibility to ensure they are happy and healthy and that the savings will follow.

As the labor market remains tight in 2019, do you see wellness gaining traction?

The traditional wellness programs of screenings and diet and exercise, they’re still there, but more holistic well-being is really catching on and people are seeing, especially with mental health being as prevalent as it is, those aspects as all tied together. With the labor market being so competitive, with wellness being seen as an additional benefit and with all of the mental health issues, it’s really expanding beyond those typical wellness programs.

How fast will it catch on?

It’s going to take a while for that kind of change to occur in a lot of our clients and a lot of our workforces here in West Michigan. There’s a lot of research behind it, but buy-in is a big deal and it’s hard for companies to bite that off. I would be surprised to see that catch on quickly, although I do think it’s moving slowly and it’s here.

Interview conducted and condensed by Mark Sanchez. 

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