Healthy Bottom Line

Photography by William S. Speer By Jay Roland October 31, 2009

Drop by FCCI Insurance Group’s Lakewood Ranch campus and you’re likely to see employees slipping into sneakers, clipping on pedometers and heading off for a robust 15-minute walk about the three-story structure. Down I-75 in Venice, you might catch folks at Tervis Tumbler taking a break from producing their trademark drinkware to get the details on an upcoming company-sponsored nature walk. And at any given Sarasota County government office, on any given weekday, you might find nurse Angela Deems-Gustafson wrapping a blood pressure cuff around a county worker’s arm for a quick health check.

Worksite wellness is more than a touchy-feely trend in human resource management. It’s improving employee morale, reducing turnover and absenteeism, saving money and—if you believe the wellness advocates out there—saving lives, too. Deems-Gustafson, the wellness development adviser for Sarasota County, says employees tell her the health screenings at work are enough to get them to a doctor and begin a life-saving program of medications, exercise, diet and smoking cessation.

“We did 900 screenings last year,” she says. “Of those, 25 percent were hypertensive. I know we’ve saved lives and prevented heart attacks.”  

It’s one thing to encourage employees to live healthier lives, but it’s another to see just how an investment in worksite wellness will pay off in dollars and cents. Heartless as it sounds, in an era of rising healthcare costs and an uncertain future for health insurance coverage, employers have to be able to justify all expenses.

The data to support the value of worksite wellness is there in the form of more than 200 peer-reviewed studies, says Dr. Don R. Powell, president and CEO of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine. Many insurance companies, for example, offer discounts to companies with established worksite wellness programs. The discounts average 3 percent to 5 percent, Powell says, but there are more savings to recoup if you’re willing to make the effort.

“Wellness doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” he says. “Companies need to realize that if they do nothing, it’s costing them money, as much as 8 percent to 9 percent a year in some places.” Wellness advocates point to the concept of “presenteeism,” for example, in which an employee is at work, but due to poor health, not working optimally. According to the Center for Work and Health, the average cost of presenteeism is more than $180 billion annually. In 2006, 56 percent of human resources executives viewed presenteeism as a problem, compared to 39 percent in 2004.

Evaluating the cost effectiveness of worksite wellness programs can be tricky since companies offer a variety of plans, but a 2005 report published in The Art of Health Promotion that reviewed 42 studies showed an average of a 26 percent reduction of costs to companies. A 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers report stated that worksite wellness programs have resulted in an average 3-to-1 return on investment.

And for local companies that are self-insured, such as FCCI, an aggressive worksite wellness program that focuses on health and medical management has helped contain costs. Lisa Krouse, vice president of human resources at FCCI and president-elect of the Sarasota-Manatee Human Resources Association, says, “The ultimate reward for all our employees is that we have not had to increase our rates for our medical and dental plans in the last five years, and we are on course to remain level in 2010.” She adds that at a self-insured company, it’s in everyone’s interest to stay healthy and fit and limit healthcare expenditures.

Tim Graham, Krouse’s counterpart at Tervis, believes the company’s worksite wellness program has kept worker’s compensation claims low, too. Much of the improvement, he says, is anecdotal, such as the four employees out of 14 in a recent smoking cessation program who quit smoking. Two weight-loss programs also have been well-received at Tervis, and Graham has also started looking into a company exercise program for workers.

The American Institute of Preventive Medicine reports that approximately 62 percent of all companies have some type of worksite wellness program in place, ranging from weekly yoga classes to much more elaborate programs involving on-site fitness centers, health screenings, weight-loss and smoking-cessation classes. Powell predicts that number is only going to grow in the years ahead.

A big new trend in worksite wellness, Powell says, is a medical self-care model, in which employees are educated through symptom-and-treatment handbooks, 24-hour nursing hotlines and other sources to better handle personal and family medical issues with fewer trips to the doctor and emergency room. Research shows 55 percent of emergency room visits and 25 percent to 40 percent of doctor visits are unnecessary, while adding that a majority of the average employee’s health insurance claims are for family members rather than the employee.

With a proven track record of cost savings, promising new practices and documented employee approval, worksite wellness programs aren’t likely to disappear. Local worksite wellness and human resource managers are in frequent communication, sharing ideas and encouraging companies with questions about such programs to visit their organizations and learn what they can.

“We do have a lot of area companies that are involved in worksite wellness and we’re very open to sharing,” Krouse says. “Sharing this sort of information makes us a better community. And it feels good just knowing that you’re helping people get healthy.”

Getting Healthy

With a wide range of worksite wellness programs in place locally and nationally, business have plenty of models and data from which to create a custom-fit version. Here are some basic approaches upon which most worksite wellness experts agree:

Start slowly. Angela Deems-Gustafson says “baby steps” are important, both to help employees get used to the idea of health screenings, classes and other programs at work or off-site, and to allow the organization to see what works and make improvements.

Create variety. Worksite wellness is not one-size-fits-all. Some  employees may need help losing weight, quitting cigarettes or relieving stress. So schedule fitness, smoking cessation and tai chi classes and invite employees to participate. “We have so many things going on here, it’s hard not to find something that works for you,” FCCI’s Lisa Krouse says.

Build trust. When an organization starts recording employee information such as blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose levels, etc., some employees may be suspicious about how that information will be used. Deems-Gustafson says it’s vital to make sure employees know health-related information is confidential and is not to be shared with managers and co-workers.

Make it convenient. Whether that means an on-site fitness center or after-hours running classes, companies will get more buy-in more quickly if a program doesn’t interfere with an already hectic schedule, Tervis’ Tim Graham says. Having two ergonomics experts come in part-time twice a week has helped employees work better and safer, and given them tools to keep from overdoing it at home or in the yard.

Hire “a visionary.” Whoever runs your company’s program, whether it’s someone contracted from the outside or a full-time employee, needs to keep up with the latest developments in worksite wellness, see the particular needs in your organization and be willing to try new things to keep managers and employees involved, Deems-Gustafson says.

Reinforce the message throughout the workplace. FCCI’s commitment to wellness can be seen in myriad ways: from the extensive salad bar at work and the preparation of healthy take-home dinners to morning, noon and evening fitness classes, on-site flu vaccines, regular lectures by Lakewood Ranch Medical Center experts, and even the pedometers FCCI distributes to encourage walking.

Create incentives. Many organizations offer cash incentives for employees who commit to worksite wellness programs. Tervis Tumbler provides $100 for employees to use on health club memberships or exercise equipment purchases.

Show support from the top. If management supports fitness class participation and even joins in or helps subsidize worksite wellness, programs have a much stronger chance of surviving. “The culture of the organization sets the tone for how something like this will be received,” Krouse says.

Take it home. Instill an approach to health that carries over to the home and beyond. Tervis has a wellness committee that plans nature walks, long bike rides and other events. FCCI sponsors employee teams in golf, softball and bowling leagues. Sarasota County has a very popular walking program and encourages families to get involved with as many wellness activities as possible. ■

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