How to Use the Student Loan Repayment Assistance Program to Promote Employee Health and Wellness
The idea that employers can play an integral role in the health and well-being of employees is fairly straightforward: we spend so much time at work, and therefore, healthy work environments that promote wellness can go a long way towards improving the quality of life of the employee. According to one analysis, we spend an average of thirteen years and two months at work in our lifetimes. Add an additional one year and two months to account the overtime that people put in. That’s a lot of time! When you consider the fact that nearly 80% of jobs are sedentary in nature or require light physical activity, you begin to see the scope of the problem.
The need for employee wellness programs
Employers have a vested interest in making sure that their employees have the resources to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle. Why? Well, aside from the fact that it’s the ethical thing to do, it may end up costing employers big money in the long run if their employees don’t have this access to resources. By resources, I mean the set of practices and conditions within the workplace that foster beneficial physical activity, healthy nutrition, and positive mental health during working hours. Though not every employee will want or be able to take advantage of these resources, there is a strong case to be made for why they should still be made available to all.
In order to give some context to these assertions, we turn to a report issued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2016 titled “Winning with Wellness.” In the report, several key facts are cited in order to provide a better understanding of the problem. Here are a few of those key facts:
- 96% of all Medicare expenditures are spent on chronic conditions that have lifestyle health risk factors.
- There are five behaviors that mitigate chronic disease: (1) walking 30 minutes a day, (2) eating healthy, (3) not smoking, (4) having a waist size that is less than half of your height, and (5) drinking alcohol only in moderation. If an individual engages in these five behaviors, they typically spend 33% to 50% less on health care costs compared with people who have health risks.
- Health affects work, and work impacts health. Employers are therefore looking for ways to decrease total health-related costs. One of the strategies is to invest in evidence-based, well-designed, and comprehensive workplace wellness programs.
- Studies suggest that companies focusing on the health and safety of their workforce can yield greater value for their investors, including a competitive advantage in the market.
The issue of engagement
Often times, the health and wellness programs that employers put in place for their employees, overseen by the company’s human resources department, is rolled out but has no bite to it. It gets stale over time, with little actual engagement or sustained enthusiasm about the program. Remember, a company wellness program has the potential to advance business interests while also improving the quality of life of employees. The employer should treat such a program as a top priority. A key fact within the “Winning with Wellness” report on this issue of employee engagement with the health programs:
- Engagement, one of the most difficult and critical challenges in wellness program design and management research, has shown that approximately 80% of the population is not ready to take action to change their health behaviors at any given time.
That’s where the employer student loan repayment assistance program comes in. Because of the malleability of the repayment assistance benefit, with a little creativity, the program can feed into a company’s health and wellness initiatives. To accomplish this, employers merely have to make eligibility to the program contingent on employee engagement with either the whole or specific aspects of the wellness program. A few key questions employers should ask themselves before committing to a particular program:
- What do I want to accomplish with my health/wellness initiative(s)?
- How do I design my program to effectively address the health needs of the population?
- How do I ensure that participating employees remain engaged with the health/wellness initiative?
- How do I plan on measuring the ROI/VOI?
A bit of creativity
The engagement piece can specifically be addressed with the structuring of the loan repayment assistance program. Some examples of potential structures are:
- General Wellness Program – Eligibility for the employer student loan repayment assistance program can be made contingent on an employee’s enrollment and participation in any of the specific health programs/initiatives that the employer puts in place. Often times, these initiatives come in the form of education programs (lunch and learns, newsletters, online modules, promotional events, etc.), and other company culture-building activities. The goal of these activities is to foster a culture of wellness, which as we have seen, is primarily a business objective for the employer.
- Gym Membership – Employers will often offer their employees discounts on local gym memberships to help promote healthy physical activity and exercise. Employees can base eligibility for the loan repayment assistance program based on whether an employee actually takes advantage of such an offering by getting a discounted gym membership.
- On-The-Clock Physical Activity – Another common feature of employer health/wellness programs is allotted time for pre-approved physical activity, like walking or stretching. Use of this time is optional but can be incentivized by opening up eligibility to the loan repayment assistance program to those who use it.
- Education Programs – Educational modules, lunch and learns, lectures, promotional events, and lessons and quizzes can be promoted and incentivized by opening up eligibility for the loan repayment assistance program to those who successfully complete the program(s).
- Health Outcomes – Employers can monitor and measure specific health outcomes, like decreased smoking, healthier eating habits, increased physical activity, and weight loss. Eligibility for the loan repayment assistance program can be made contingent on the attainment of these health goals.
The science of behavior change
The science of behavior change, and specifically, the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), tells employers how to implement a successful health/wellness program in order to create lasting behavioral changes. According to the TTM, successful behavioral change is achieved in six steps:
Maintenance is where the loan repayment assistance program fits in. It is the most challenging stage of the model. Most people get very excited when embarking on a lifestyle change to lose weight or become healthier. But, that zeal and energy wears off over time. Think of all the people who end up breaking their New Year’s resolutions. A well-designed health/wellness program will address each stage of the model. The employer student loan repayment assistance benefit can play an integral role in the overall design of an employer’s health/wellness program.
I’m a 32-year-old writer based out of San Antonio, Texas, with my own mountain of student loan debt to conquer. When I’m not working, I’m either out for a run on the trails or chilling at home with my rescue dog, Vincent (for Van Gogh, my favorite painter). I like to eat (a lot), read (I’m a real horror junkie, with Stephen King topping my list of favorite writers), watch movies (Titanic – yes, Titanic – is the be-all and end-all for me), drink wine (red only, please), travel (Italy has my heart and always will), collect crystals, meditate, and read tarot cards. Perpetually single, but a softie deep down, I try to stay true to my hippie heart and find the good in every person and situation. I remain curious and open to learning new things (except for math which, I am convinced, will always be my downfall). If I can answer any questions about my work here on student loan debt and repayment assistance programs, feel free to shoot me an email. I don’t bite (usually). [email protected]
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