OPM offers up advice for agencies to improve employee health and wellness programs

Agencies have achieved some middling progress on their efforts to improve and prioritize federal employee health and wellness, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

An evidence-based survey of agency health and wellness initiatives shows progress in some areas but gaps in others, particularly in organizations’ efforts to implement nutrition and other support programs for nursing employees, which are required by law.

OPM late last week released the results of its most recent WellCheck survey, a biannual assessment of agency-submitted health and wellness program data. OPM evaluates this data using a worksite wellness score card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal, according to OPM, is to determine how well agency programs are actually preventing disease or improving employee health and well being.

“Well-designed worksite wellness programs contribute to effective performance management and employee engagement and are an important part of employee total compensation packages,” Margaret Weichert, OPM’s acting director, wrote in an Aug. 29 memo to chief human capital officers. “A healthier workforce can improve productivity, increase employee engagement, reduce costs associated with healthcare, disability and workers compensation and contribute to a culture of excellence.”

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More than 180 worksites from 31 agencies participated in the 2018 survey.

Individual scores from specific agency worksites ranged from a 32 to a perfect score of 286, according to OPM. The average score was a 67%, or 191 out of 286 possible points.

When it came to promoting flu vaccinations or tobacco-free lifestyles, for example, agencies scored especially well, OPM said.

But agencies could use more work in supporting nursing employees and in promoting nutrition programs for their workforces.

Specifically, OPM urged agencies to fully comply with federal law, which requires them to provide designated, private lactation space and give employees flexible time, whether it be paid or unpaid breaks, to express breast milk.

“A concentrated effort by individual agencies and the broader community can move the needle and provide critical support that helps employees reduce medical costs, improve productivity and advance their state of health. Agencies should carefully review their WellCheck results related to nutrition and lactation support, identify program gaps, and create action plans to improve these areas to the maximum extent possible.

Agencies should also create action plans and other strategies to implement a wide variety of health and wellness support programs, which OPM described as “strongly encouraged” guidance.

Communicating the more notable features of the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) will make employees more aware of preventative care and support services such as annual check-ups, vaccinations, mental health assessments and others that are free or at a low-cost to participants.

In addition, OPM advised agencies to create a specific wellness policy and subsequent plan for communicating those plans to the workforce. Senior leaders should sponsor agency wellness programs and maintain an active health and wellness committee, OPM said.

“Take action to create a working environment where employee health and safety are valued, supported and promoted through worksite health and wellness programs, policies, benefits and environmental supports,” Weichert said. “Federal agencies can integrate the worksite health and wellness program into regular agency operations and align the program to the agency’s overall goals.”

Agencies should consider training their managers and supervisors on the value of health and wellness programs and use a series of metrics and evaluation tools to ensure the initiatives are working, OPM said.

Agencies will receive their individual results, as well as recommendations for improving their own wellness programs, from OPM.

The latest results come as OPM recently advised agencies to strategically evaluate the performance of their telework and work-life programs. Federal employees who telework or participate in one of their agencies’ health and wellness programs are often happier, more successful and more engaged, according to a 2018 OPM study.

The NASA Ames Research Center had the highest overall WellCheck score in 2018. Others in the top ten span a wide variety of geographic locations.

OPM said it planned to host forums that showcase best practices and other lessons from the following top 10 worksites:

  1. NASA Ames Research Center
  2. Department of Housing and Urban Development, region 2
  3. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters (Department of Homeland Security)
  4. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 office, New York
  5. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  6. National Archives and Records Administration Nixon Library
  7. Forest Service national headquarters (Agriculture Department)
  8. National Institutes of Health (Department of Health and Human Services)
  9. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (HHS)
  10. Health Resources and Services Administration (HHS)

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