Workplace Wellness

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

January. The time of new beginnings (read that New Year’s resolutions). You make them; your friends make them; your employees make them. The odds are good that any list of resolutions includes at least one wellness or fitness goal – like eating less or working out more. This year, how about a business resolution to initiate some kind of wellness program at your company? It doesn’t need to be expensive, and the benefits might surprise you.

A wellness program can include anything from a lunchtime walking group to occasional speakers on stress, from stop-smoking workshops to blood pressure screenings or cholesterol testing, from noontime aerobics classes to a complete on-site fitness installation. Lisa Schilling, director of Fletcher-Allen Health Care’s office of community health improvement, cites studies that suggest an employer can lower sick leave and absenteeism, reduce the use of health benefits, reduce workers’ comp costs, see fewer on-the-job injuries, decrease medical leave time and reduce disability management costs, among other things. This can be especially beneficial for self-insured corporations. She cites an incentive-based health promotion program at Honeywell Inc., she recently studied. “Honeywell has 57,000 employees, and their savings for the years 1991 through ’94 was $3.6 million, based on the use of healthcare insurance dollars, absenteeism rate and workers’ comp claims.”

Back in the ’80s, it became something of a fad for companies to pay health club memberships or dedicate in-house space to exercise equipment, in hopes of experiencing cost savings, says Bill Moore, director of member services at the YMCA. A lot of businesses gave up when they found that they weren’t saving money. “I think what happens is people have it for a year, don’t see a financial outcome immediately and drop it,” Schilling says. “Behaviors don’t change overnight, but if you stick to the programs and use the right modalities, advertising and incentives, it actually can save you money in the long run.” She suggests giving a program at least three years to begin seeing results.

According to Schilling, any successful program will include three major steps: assessment, education and follow-through. Assessment means finding out what the health risks are for the people who work at a company. That’s not looking at things that afflict them now. It means looking at future risks based on lifestyle, background, etc. Of the three steps, the assessment is the most expensive, but once it’s done and put together with the education and follow-through, she says the payback can be worth many times the cost. Fletcher-Allen offers a program to help companies with all three of these steps. It also has its own on-site incentive program, called Take It to the Next Level, which awards employees points for lifestyle improvements, such as exercise, spending time with the family, stress reduction or attending Weight Watchers classes. “As a result of Weight Watchers, we had 30 people drop over 300 pounds total!” Schilling exclaims. “So it’s counseling, lunchtime sessions at work, walking clubs. We know what health risks are here, and we’ve designed certain programs.”

If you don’t have the funds to do a full-blown assessment right now, Schilling says, there are acknowledged health risks that cross society in general on which you might base a beginning program. These include smoking, alcoholism, stress and obesity. A walking club might be a good place to start.

One easy thing to do is consider a corporate membership package at one of the area’s fitness centers. If that’s not feasible, consider paying for employees to join the center of their choice, then ask them to take care of the monthly charges. The YMCA offers a discount when five or more workers participate in one of its exercise programs.

Wendy Pierson of Personal Fitness Interiors in South Burlington says convenience is an advantage to job site fitness centers. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

What some area employers do

Besides the savings resulting from a corporate wellness program, convenience is a good reason to have something on-site, says Wendy Pierson, owner of Personal Fitness Interiors in South Burlington, an equipment retailer with corporate customers. “It’s one less stop to make on the way to work,” she says. One of Pierson’s customers is Market Makers, which has had an in-house fitness center for a couple of years. “Their place is in use before work, lunchtime and after work.” She believes on-site fitness facilities can be a hiring incentive to the right individual. “It denotes a progressive company in some people’s eyes,” she says.

More than 40 percent of employees at National Life in Montpelier participate in the company's wellness incentive program, coordinated by Gail Baker. Eight full-time instructors work at the on-site exercise facility. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

National Life Insurance Co. in Montpelier has an incentive program with an on-site equipment room and an aerobics room plus a PAR Course through the woods that has 18 stations – for pushups, a chin-up station, one for jumping jacks, etc. – and covers 1.4 miles. There are eight full-time, CPR-certified instructors who teach step aerobics, body toning, line dancing and other aerobic exercise forms. Gail Baker is the staff wellness coordinator. “Employees pay a small fee to be in the program,” she says, “and they get a scorecard to track activities, which can include exercise here or at home to videos, walking, whatever. Three hundred of National Life’s 700 employees belong. A lot of times we bring in outside people to do lectures here. We’ve had chiropractors talk about chiropractic care; we’ve done breast cancer awareness; every year we do the flu shots, cholesterol screening — a lot with both the health part and the fitness part.” Employees can bring family and friends to use the PAR course, and National Life allows Montpelier High School students to use the facilities.

Vermont National Bank has wellness activities. “We may do flu shots, give cholesterol testing or take blood pressures,” says Beth Ives, human resource assistant in Brattleboro. Activities depend on the region.” Vermont National also encourages its employees to participate in community fitness events, such as the Corporate Cup Race in Montpelier, the Winston Prouty Walkathon and the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, which the bank sponsored.

When Downs Rachlin & Martin was planning its new space in Courthouse Plaza, Burlington, in the late ’80s, two locker rooms (one for men, one for women) complete with showers were included to facilitate lunchtime runs. “Those showers are busy all the time,” says Kathy Davis, a partner with the firm. “People can go out for a run anytime they want. We have an incredibly athletic group, so everybody does it on their own.” DRM has had a team in the Vermont City Marathon every year and has won its division three years in a row.

What can you do?

Start small. Pierson says some companies begin by allowing a certain amount of time each day for employees to work out. Masseurs can come to the workplace and give mini massages. Outside instructors might come in to lead aerobics or resistance classes, teach yoga or give instruction in meditation techniques. Consider addressing special-topic areas like nutrition, weight loss, pre-natal education, smoking cessation or retiree wellness. Subscribe to a 24-hour nurse advice phone service with self-care reference book to help employees assess whether to go to an emergency room, call a doctor or try home remedies – it could reduce the use of your health-care plan.

There’s no doubt that interest in wellness is growing, and savvy employers are taking a serious look at what they can do to encourage their employees to get and stay fit and healthy. According to an article in a recent issue of On-Site Fitness magazine, programs in physical activity, medical self-care and high-risk intervention make the biggest impact in behavior change and cost reduction. Avoid the temptation to underestimate the cost of a program while overestimating the benefits. An assessment of your own workplace can aim you in the right direction. Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to take the first steps toward happier, healthier employees.