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Wellness at Work

AICR's Health@Work | September 10, 2013

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Last year Bonnie Tallaksen stepped on the scale and realized she weighed more than she ever had before. She started a Weight Watchers program but wasn't seeing the results she wanted. And when it came to working out, "I hadn't found my niche," says the quality assurance associate at Westlake, Ohio-based Hyland Software. But when a colleague suggested joining her in a company-sponsored spin class, Tallaksen was "hooked."

"The idea that I could work out in the middle of the day or early in the morning is big," says Tallaksen, who has not only shed pounds, but also seen a change in her eating habits, her overall fitness, and her stress level. Just as important, her three young adult daughters are now looking to her as a role model. "Instead of reaching for the M&Ms," says Tallaksen, "we take a bike ride together." 

Tallaksen says she not only feels like a better mom, but also a better employee. 

And that's just what Hyland wants to hear, says Wellness Coordinator Anne Hartnett. "Our employees always come first," says Hartnett, whether that means having an onsite dry cleaner and hair salon, or an evolving wellness program that includes not only Weight Watchers classes and an onsite dietitian, but also annual health screenings, a life coach, company-wide fitness challenges, an annual $300 reimbursement for those who prefer to work out at their own gym, and more. 

According to Hartnett, Hyland's wellness program is multi-faceted because "wellness comes in a variety of ways." 

Hyland is certainly not alone in offering its employees a wellness program. Indeed, according to the 2012 Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust - an annual survey of employer health benefits - 63 percent of companies with three or more employees that offer health benefits also offer at least one wellness program. 

The survey found that the larger the company, the more likely it was to offer a wellness program. But that doesn't mean that small companies aren't getting in on the act., for example, has just 52 employees, but this year implemented "Healthy Healthy," in which 28 team members, split between San Francisco and Nashville, selected either a weight loss or a smoking cessation goal (those who were already where they wanted to be weight-wise and/or were tobacco-free, just had to retain the status quo). The company put up a $15,000 pool to divide at year-end for all those who met their stated goal. 

"So far, we've lost just over 2% of our weight (with expectations that that will increase to 2.5% by the end of the third quarter), and there are now only 4 smokers in the company, as opposed to 8," reports CEO Mike Faith. 

"I'm pretty proud of what we've done," he says, adding that the program really wasn't difficult to implement. "We just needed clear goals and team inclusion to make it work." 

At companies with more formalized wellness programs, features typically include Health Risk Assessments (HRAs), screenings for high blood pressure and cholesterol; behavior modification programs, such as smoking cessation, weight management, and exercise; health education and resources such as classes or referrals to online sites for health advice; and changes in the work environment or the offer of special benefits or reimbursements to encourage exercise and a healthy lifestyle. 

Wellness programs not only contribute to the employees' health but to the health of the company overall by reducing healthcare costs. That could certainly be one of the factors contributing to the increasing number of companies reporting that they offer such plans - an 11 percent surge between 2011 and 2013, according to the 2013 Aflac WorkForces Report, conducted by Research Now.

At LifeBridge Health in Baltimore, Guy Van Tiggelen, Director of Total Rewards and Employee Services, has seen the organization's wellness program develop over the past decade. Starting out with no- or low-cost features such as fitness classes and nutritional information in the employee cafeteria, LifeBridge now has a fully-funded, multi-pronged program, run by a local employee benefits network, that includes Health Risk Assessments, annual physicals, diabetes education and resources, fitness classes, smoking cessation programs, and discounted membership to the organization's freestanding health and fitness facility. To encourage employees to focus on their own health and wellness, LifeBridge has also instituted a penalty in the form of higher health insurance premiums for those who choose not to participate in the program (employees earn points for the various components they take advantage of; reach the required number of points, and your premium goes down; if not, it goes up). 

"There are always a number of people who are not interested and will pay the extra premium cost," says Van Tiggelen, but more than 70 percent of the 4,800 employees eligible (those who take part in LifeBridge's benefits plan) reach their point level. 

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, KI Furniture employees have long followed the lead of CEO Dick Resch, an avid fitness buff (both executive support and leading-by-example are key to a successful wellness program, say those charged with managing such efforts), but through the years the company has formalized the program in phases and recently added incentives, reports Tim Van Severen, Corporate Risk Manager. 

One of KI's key components centers on the Health Risk Assessment that's offered to KI employees and their spouses (available even if the employee doesn't take the company-sponsored health insurance plan). The combined HRA plus a biometrics report that includes those all-important numbers--blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.--are very informative and can let the company know how effective its wellness program is. The combined scores are tied to the employees' health premiums, and even though the company has a high-deductible health plan, most employees have lowered their premiums dramatically, Van Severen reports. 

Additional wellness tools, says Benefits Manager Jodi McWilliams, include event reimbursement for participating in charity walks and runs, health coaching, an onsite personal trainer, disease management program, smoking cessation benefit, onsite gym, and a flexible work schedule to encourage employees to take advantage of the various options available to them. KI has also purchased company bikes so that employees can ride back and forth between locations instead of driving. 

Starting or growing a wellness program can have healthy rewards for employees and businesses alike, but can also come with challenges, from inadequate funding to shortage of space. "You need money, time, and people committed to it," acknowledges Van Severen, before adding, "But don't get discouraged. It can be done."

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