Road to Wellness

Invest in Wellness to Boost Employee Health and Your Bottom Line

When Maria Hernandez walks around her office in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, she doesn’t just see four walls and some cubicles; she sees centers of health. There’s the kitchen, where free oatmeal and fruit reside. Where the coffee brews, there’s decaf as well as full-octane caffeine. There’s the hallway, where vending machines offer as many wholesome options as junky ones. Then there’s the window looking out onto the street, where she views employees walking on their lunch breaks.

This is Hernandez’s domain. As benefits manager for Stiles Commercial Real Estate, she has the job of nudging, cajoling, and luring her co-workers to eat better, exercise more, and otherwise live more healthily. When she started here five-and-a-half years ago, a wellness program was already in place—but she’s taken it to the next level. Hernandez is responsible for the oatmeal and fruit, the healthful snacks, and the decaf. She’s also responsible for the wellness corner on the company’s intranet and for financial incentives for employees who stop smoking and lower their blood pressure and body mass index.

“This is the payoff; this is the feedback,” says Hernandez. “People are making salads in the kitchen. They’re losing weight. You see that an employee looks happy.”

Indeed, in the years since the first blood pressure cuff appeared in the first office, workplace wellness has evolved dramatically. Today, wellness programs may start with what Hernandez calls “biometrics”—that is, blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol screenings—and can extend to health fairs, company-owned gyms, and even on-site health clinics at certain large corporations. Between blood tests and staff physicians are a lot of options and many ways to make a wellness program work for you.

A healthy bottom line
There are good reasons to consider a workplace wellness program. Some are obvious: a happy employee is a faithful employee. There are financial reasons, too.

According to the U.S. Workplace Wellness Alliance, a collaboration between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Partnership for Prevention, health problems cost employers $1,685 per employee every year. And with annual health-care costs skyrocketing for most companies by double digits, it makes sense to trim where you can.

A 2001 review of the literature on workplace wellness programs, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, found that companies save, on average, $3.50 for every dollar they spend on employee wellness. Another review found reductions of 26 percent in health-care costs and 32 percent in workers’ compensation claims.

“The ultimate goal,” says Hernandez of her work, “is to get people off medications or to lower doses. A lot of things we do are designed around that.”

By the numbers
To build an effective workplace wellness program, start with the basics. Take a look at the utilization reports you get from your insurance carrier. There, you’ll see where the major costs are and get a sense what needs the most attention in your office. Maybe a number of employees use health services for diabetes. That could indicate a need for more healthful food in the office or an incentive program for exercise.

Next, think about the demographics of your office.
“You have to keep in mind what the demographics look like and what incentives match the population,” says Hernandez, who has been in the field for 15 years. Gym memberships are popular among the young, for instance, whereas older workers may need more information about heart disease and cancer.

Next, arrange to have employees screened for their biometrics. Insurance carriers usually provide these screenings free of charge, and you can build a health fair around them. Contact local health-food stores and ask if they would be willing to bring samples of healthful snacks, and reach out to local gyms and weight loss programs, for which such events are marketing opportunities.

You may be surprised at what you discover, says Hernandez. She remembers seeing blood thinner prescriptions on the rise last year. At the next health fair, she asked the company’s insurance carrier to screen employees for build-up of fat in the bloodstream. Out of 45 employees, two were at “borderline heart attack” levels, she says.

“We sent them to the hospital, and that really paid off,” she says. “You’re not allowed to ask individuals if they are using blood thinners, but if they come to the health fair, it may be possible to take action. Then you couple that with a healthful diet.”

Layer in the fun
How you do that—including what combination of incentives you offer—is then up to you.

“What you add on top of that will be layers that lead to the success of your wellness program,” says Hernandez. “That’s where being innovative and keeping it fun come in.”

Consider the following types of wellness programs.

Stress reduction
Employees in Hernandez’s office have access to stress reduction CDs and other related material. Some employers turn a vacant conference room into a lunchtime yoga studio, providing mats and an instructor. Hernandez even considers the company holiday party a stress reduction event, since people relax and socialize with their co-workers.

Tech tools
Hernandez has stocked a portion of the Stiles intranet with health promotion information. And every month, she sends a health awareness e-newsletter to employees. In October, for instance, the theme was Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Dietary changes
Most offices offer free food, even if just leftovers from a staff meeting. Providing an alternative to that, and to the reception-desk candy bowl, can help employees make healthier decisions and be mindful of reducing their risk of obesity-related illnesses. Hernandez stocks the kitchen with instant oatmeal and fruit, so employees have healthful options for breakfast. Some even bring the food home to their kids, which extends the program’s reach. Other companies encourage departments to compete for how much weight the employees can lose.

Anna Marie Sannes, a sales administrator for Trident Seafood in Seattle, had been working at her company for a decade when a new manager revamped the wellness program, but it caused stress, especially around food.

“I was a bit skeptical at first,” Sannes says. “A lot of people felt they couldn’t bring in cookies—that it is looked down upon. I think it’s important that the wellness coordinator has the right attitude. Ours is great. She doesn’t care if I’m eating a cookie. She just says, ‘I don’t ever want to eat another doughnut in my life.’ She doesn’t harp, but she is empathic, and it makes me more aware.”

Exercise programs
With new research showing that sitting for long periods of time is among the worst things we can do for our health, adding some kind of exercise is key to many workplace wellness programs. The options range from the most expensive—building and running an on-site gym—to the more reasonable, such as providing gym membership discounts. Some businesses give employees $10 pedometers and create competitions between departments for how many steps employees can take every week.

Other companies enroll in charity walks and other events. This has several benefits: it gives people a sense of greater purpose, raises the company’s profile in the community, and gets employees out exercising. Multiday events, like the AIDS LifeCycle or the Susan G. Komen Three-Day Walk for breast cancer require training that gets employees moving long term.

Rachel Milstein didn’t exercise at all in her previous job. The 31-year-old Albuquerque resident worked in a parking garage, where she sat all day and put on 85 pounds. Then she went back to school and got a job in the Albuquerque district attorney’s office. Her new workplace gave her half an hour three days a week for physical fitness. She could use it to go for a walk, but she takes that time to drive to and from her gym so she can work out during her lunch hour.

“It’s been amazing for me,” she says. “Since I started there in January 2010, I’ve lost 30 pounds. It’s really nice to have that. I feel so much better the rest of the day. It is like an invisible support system.”

Financial incentives
Wellness programs with financial incentives are some of the most effective. They often entail giving employees breaks in health insurance premiums if they have normal blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels. Sannes gets $6 off her monthly premium for each of three normal readings: diastolic blood pressure, systolic blood pressure, and LDL cholesterol. She saves $35 for having a normal body weight and $15 for not smoking.

“There are different levels, and you save more the healthier your levels are,” she says. “I think I save $80 total off my premium. It sure helps.”
But if not well-conceived, these programs can engender as much ill will as they do goodwill. Last year, Walmart drew fire for its decision to levy a $2,000 penalty on every employee who smokes.

Meghan Hogue, 36, who works at a San Francisco Bay Area health education company, says her office doesn’t have much of a wellness program. But one thing it does is charge employees a fee if they smoke. Amid increased regular premiums and decreased benefits, the policy leaves Hogue cold.

“Dude, you’re already screwing us,” she quips. “It just seems so punitive.”
This brings up an important point: wellness programs can’t only be financial. To change the company’s culture and affect the bottom line, they have to be fun and be part of employees’ daily lives.

“Wellness is becoming more of a social event,” Hernandez says. “It’s not just getting employees involved but keeping them engaged and involved.” DW

Heather Boerner is a San Francisco–based writer. Visit her at

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