Well and Good

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2008

When health insurance costs rose for Zenith Insurance Company this year, the workers compensation insurance provider did not pass the increase along to its employees. Instead, “we decided to ramp up our wellness programs,” says Ursula Nixon, assistant vice president of human resources in the Sarasota office.

The Zenith office at Five Points in downtown Sarasota had built an onsite 3,000-square-foot fitness center in 1999. But hiring fitness director Shawn Snyder this year made all the difference. “Our exercise classes are filled to the brim. People who I never thought would go to the gym have chosen an active lifestyle,” says senior recruiter Fran Pollock. “[Snyder] is a presence, and there’s an accountability factor in an appropriate and humorous way. She walks through the cafeteria and glances at what employees are eating.”

Snyder provides free, one-on-one consultations, expanded group fitness classes ranging from evening yoga to a half-hour of “burn and firm,” and Club 100, an incentive program for employees, who collect points redeemable for small gifts by working out and taking the stairs. Lunch-and-learn programs include healthy cooking classes and an annual wellness event offers health screenings.

The results are healthier employees, but Nixon hopes the approach will also pare down health insurance expenses. A recent survey of 70 health insurers conducted by Aon Consulting found that health care costs are projected to rise by 10 percent in 2009.

“You can give employees free memberships to the gym, but you can’t make them go,” says Dr. Charles Bens, president of [email protected] in Sarasota. Bens helped establish SarasotaCounty’s wellness program and consults with business and nonprofit centers around the state. His ideal employer-based program uses a carrot-and-stick approach, with incentives to adopt healthier habits and disincentives to discourage unhealthy behavior.

Successful wellness programs also incorporate goal-setting and integrated medicine. The return for employees is their active participation and control over health challenges.

He charges companies $5,000 to $50,000 for his wellness programs, with a return on investment of lowered health costs. If one employee is able to control his or her diabetes without medication, that’s a substantial long-term payoff for the employer, Bens says. “CEOs get it immediately from a business point of view. They know their costs are going through the roof.”


Assess your corporate culture and demographics. “Is there a culture of openness, trust and transparency? If not, the employees will look and ask, ‘What are they scheming to do to us now?’” Bens says. Companies with high turnover or employees who travel or work off-site are also not good candidates.

Generate enthusiasm. Schedule a pep rally or a workshop that raises enthusiasm. Offer incentives such as health food store coupons, time off to attend seminars and team-based goals.

Negotiate with insurance. Insurance providers may be able to cover wellness programs, preventative medicine or alternative therapies. Some can institute a higher deductible for employees who have manageable health risks such as high cholesterol (Bens’ stick approach), and lower it when employees report measurable improvement. They can establish Health Savings Accounts to help employees with out-of-pocket costs.

Measure results. “You have to have statistics as a starting point. If you don’t know what the average health of your workforce is, then how will you know if you’ve improved it?” says Bens. Individual health statistics are private because of HIPAA laws, but companies can look at the group as a whole.

Dedicate a staff person. Wellness programs are successful when a staff person is given time to coordinate, negotiate with insurance providers, plan seminars and promote incentive programs.

Lead by example. “It depends on the support of leaders,” Bens says.

Filed under
Show Comments