Healthy Bodies, Healthy Profits

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Spend $1 on wellness programs, get $3 back.

More business owners are jumping on the wellness bandwagon, establishing corporate programs to bolster employees' health and happiness. In fact, 92% of U.S. companies offer some type of health-promotion program, up from 88% in 1995, according to Hewitt Associates.

Why worry about wellness? Because the physical, mental and emotional state of your employees is going to impact your company's bottom line — for better or worse. Companies with effective health-promotion programs have achieved:

  • Decreased absenteeism.
  • Lower medical and workers' compensation costs.
  • Increased productivity.
  • Higher retention.
  • Increased morale.

Taking stock

Before you launch a wellness program, take stock to make sure that time and money are spent wisely. Otherwise efforts could backfire: One company kicked off its wellness program by building a company gym and conducting a prostate cancer campaign. The gym was a big hit; however, the prostate campaign bombed. The company later found that 70% of its employees were women of child-bearing age. Focusing on women's health issues would have been a better choice.

  1. What are your goals and objectives as an employer? (To retain and attract employees? To increase morale? To decrease health-care costs?)
  2. What do employees want and need?

Work-force demographics are a good starting point. Health-insurance claims can help determine problem areas: Perhaps you have a lot of injuries due to lifting or repetitive motion. Absenteeism is another good indicator to examine — it can reflect the state of employees' morale as well as their health.

Further explore what your work force needs through focus groups, surveys, individual interviews and e-mail. Creating an employee task force to help develop wellness programs is also a smart move; employees are more likely to participate and rally co-workers when they feel a sense of ownership.

Food first

Although wellness programs can vary greatly in scope, nutritional education is a crucial component. Consider:

  • One-quarter of Americans are considered obese (at least 30 pounds over their recommended weight), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Obesity leads to cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems and digestive disorders; the cost of treating chronic diseases caused by obesity totaled $99.2 billion in 1995.
  • Poor dietary habits and lack of exercise account for 300,000 deaths per year, ranking second to smoking in terms of preventable causes of death.

Bringing in a credible source, such as a registered dietician, to conduct educational workshops is a good way to get started. Integrating hands-on activities with education increases the effectiveness of any wellness program. For example, Mara-Mi, a Minneapolis-based stationery manufacturer, hosted a "nutrition week" last summer; among speakers was cookbook author Paulette Mitchell, who gave demonstrations on how to make breakfast smoothies and low-fat dressings.

Internally, there are many simple ways to cultivate healthier eating habits. Tabin Corp., a Chicago-based provider of business technology and services with 65 employees, took a stand on sugar last year. Management replaced candy and cookies with an employee snack bar stocked with veggies and fruit.

It wasn't an instant hit, admits CEO Josh Tabin: "At first we had complaints, but now people are starting to adjust. Insurance costs aside, the healthier employees are, the happier they are. There is less moodiness and better attitudes when people aren't craving their next sugar or nicotine break."

The snack bar is replenished mid-morning and mid-afternoon. "If someone has missed breakfast or skipped lunch, having a snack available will keep their energy from getting too low," says Tabin. Some other ideas:

  • If you serve food during meetings, eliminate doughnuts and offer bagels and fruit instead; push water and juice instead of coffee.
  • Stock vending machines with nutritious choices such as pretzels and fruit; price candy bars higher than healthy snacks.
  • If you celebrate employees' birthdays, try a fat-free alternative. Instead of cake, Tabin Corp. now hands out balloons, which saves money as well as calories.

The mind-body connection

Regular exercise enhances mood, performance and the ability to focus. So when you encourage employees to exercise, you're boosting the company's productivity as well as employees' health.

Barbara H. Mulkey Engineering Inc. maintains an exercise room with showers at its headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., along with an outdoor basketball court. Employees can also participate in a company softball team and bowling outings. "We try to do a lot of team activities that require people to get up and move," says CEO Barbara Mulkey, who has grown the firm to 145 employees since 1993. "A person who's leading a healthy, balanced life is a better employee. And it's not just a matter of being physically able to show up for work — they'll have a better attitude while they're here."

A few suggestions for on-the-job fitness:

  • If you can't afford an on-site gym, subsidize a health-club membership.
  • Bring in an instructor to host a dance or yoga class at lunch.
  • Create a "fitness scholarship." Set aside a sum of money that employees can spend on some physical endeavor, such as athletic gear.
  • Organize group walks at lunchtime.

Companies buy in to wellness


Source: Society for Human Resources Management's annual benefits survey.

Other aspects of wellness programs

Diagnostic health screenings. Early detection of health problems can help employees modify their behavior, aid treatment and improve chances for recovery. Health screenings can include blood pressure, blood-chemistry profile, height-to-weight ratios, hearing, cholesterol, bone-mineral density, thyroid and mammograms. Caveat: To protect privacy, employers should only see group risk factors.

Injury and disease prevention. According to the Wellness Councils of America, 70% of doctor visits are unnecessary. Hold forums to educate employees about self-treatment of common conditions and when it's necessary to go to the doctor.

Smoking cessation. To back up its new smoking-cessation program, Tabin Corp. created a no-smoking policy last year. "Employees used to take cigarette breaks in front of our building, but now they're not allowed to smoke anywhere in sight of it, and we have buckets of gum around as an alternative," explains Tabin. "We found out that most of our smokers were peer smokers; when smoking became inconvenient, it was enough to make those people stop."

Stress management. Teach employees how to react to stress; solutions can run the gamut from creating a break room where employees can cool down and listen to relaxing music, to providing them with a punching bag to slug away stress. Massage therapy has also become increasingly popular (see chart).

Environment and ergonomics. How does your facility influence employee health and well-being? Check out air quality, lighting, temperature and security. Are employees using equipment correctly?

Work-life issues. Realizing how much the home front can impact workers from 9-5, more companies are offering flexible working arrangements and child-care solutions.

A pioneer of family friendliness, Nancy Rodriguez launched her business in 1 985 with flexibility in mind. In fact, she picked the company's location to be close to schools that employees' children attended. "That way, working mothers could still attend school programs or visit their children at lunch," explains Rodriguez, CEO of Food Marketing Support Systems Inc., an Oak Park, Ill.-based R&D firm that develops new food products for large retailers and foodservice companies.

Among Rodriguez's 20 employees, three telecommute and several enjoy flextime. "It's been a real incentive for retention," says Rodriguez. "In 16 years, I've only lost one person to another job opportunity."

Granted, flexibility can pose communication challenges. "We dovetail responsibilities among managers so there is dual knowledge about project information and flow," says Rodriguez. Another strategy: An internal electronic newsletter is updated daily to keep employees in the loop.

Personal services. In an effort to reduce employee stress, more companies are starting to offer special services such as dry cleaning, personal travel assistance and grocery delivery. "The less time that employees have to spend running errands is more time they have to relax and spend with their families or friends," says Mulkey, who offers her employees lunch delivery and dry-cleaning pickup.

"I hear so many business owners say, 'We can't afford to do that.' My answer is, 'How can you afford not to?' " adds Mulkey. "You really do come out ahead. What at the time appears to be a cost is really an investment. If employees know you care about them, they care about the company more."

Writer: TJ Becker

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