How Population Health Management Differs from Wellness Programs

by Sarah Gunter

Wellness programs have long been touted as a benefits solution for improving employee health. Considering the chronic nature of behavioral health issues, the need for a proactive solution is clear. However, wellness programs are also notorious for having low levels of employee engagement and questionable ROIs. That’s where Sustainable Health Index (SHI) differs from the wellness program model—its data-driven, tailored approach is based more largely around the idea of population health management.


Speaking to how the landscape of wellness for employers has evolved over the past decade, Mike Riley, CEO and Co-Founder of SHI, explains, “I’m not sure it has; you still see an unbelievable number of slick and sexy individual wellness apps on the market. The problem is that health challenges are rooted in human AND corporate behaviors. If an individual approach worked, there would be many more studies supporting workplace wellness programs.”


SHI uses a biannual health index to provide insight into the behaviors, beliefs, and barriers impacting an organization’s health. Then, the data is used to design critical pathways and optimize corporate strategies to secure and advance the health and wellbeing of the workforce. Riley emphasizes that this step is what sets SHI apart: “Lots of people have great data, but it is very hard to act on in a way that impacts the entire community. We exist to help our clients get to execution.”


When SHI conducted its first index for one client, a company with a 2,000-employee group working in a manual labor industry, they discovered that a large percentage of the population was hurting physically and emotionally. The client had moderate to high levels of risk along 5 key metrics: Stress, Disease Risk, Movement, Fitness, and Nutrition. SHI also conducted a Health Culture Analysis, measuring Readiness to Change, Ability & Confidence, and Perceived Influence among employees.


What SHI found was that movement quality was one of the highest drivers of overall risk, and that although stress levels were not as high, over half of the employee population was experiencing at least moderate stress. Diving deeper into the data along these two metrics, SHI discovered that back pain was the most prevalent movement quality issue, and that respondents experiencing these issues also had higher incidences of obesity and stress. The overwhelming majority of stress was associated with financial stress and death/serious illness of a loved one.


Where it came to health culture, SHI found that Readiness, Ability, and Confidence were quite good for Movement Quality risk groups, but that Perceived Influence and Sense of Belonging were low. This meant SHI would need to direct the client to solutions that would engage and reward employees who felt confident that they could improve their health, but relatively unsupported by their organization.


SHI’s strategy began with addressing pain, as lowering physical and emotional pain would provide some immediate relief, allowing employees to feel better overall. Their strategy also focused on releasing community education, considering that employees felt positively about changing their health behaviors but unsure where to start. By beginning with a focus on movement quality and providing pain relief, the client could increase trust and engagement among employees, creating opportunities to address nutrition and fitness behaviors down the line.


Some of SHI’s recommended solutions included developing a framework for providing Musculoskeletal rehab for employees with back pain, as well as “Talk and Walk” affinity groups, a way of providing grief counseling that includes physical activity. By their second health index with SHI, the client had vastly improved their scores for Movement Quality, with high-risk decreased by 36%, and low risk increased by 21%. There were small improvements along the other metrics as well and an improved risk distribution for their Total Health Score.


“Often times, organizations have serious ambitions to support employees in multiple ways, and they spend a ton of money to do it. It can be overwhelming for anyone. We use the SHI data to send us off in the right direction and the continuous flow of data helps us stay on track or redirect quickly if needed,” says Riley. “At our core, we help solve the problem of where an organization should invest to support the total health of their workforce.”


The Sustainable Health Index is a part of The Granite List, the most trusted network of solutions for the employee benefits arena. Learn more at 

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