The Benefits of Workplace Wellness Programs

By: Jacqui Cook

Healthier employees make for a stronger association. If you're looking to build a workplace with more staff camaraderie, greater productivity, and less absenteeism, an organization-wide wellness initiative can help you get there. And the gravy? Lower insurance costs. (Titled "Well at Work" in the print edition.)

American Medical Association Yoga Exercise
American Medical Association staff take part in an onsite yoga class. (Photo courtesy of American Medical Association)

When the Oncology Nursing Society built its new headquarters in Pittsburgh eight years ago, Ellie Mary, CWWS, went to the human resources director with an idea: Instead of letting the unoccupied space sit empty until it was rented, why not set up a dedicated workout space for employees?

She got an enthusiastic green light, and Mary, ONS's payroll and benefits specialist and an avid exerciser, got busy setting up a few classes, a TV for workout DVDs, and an area for walking indoors when the weather was bad. The space was eventually rented, but by then her small initiative was growing into an organization-wide wellness movement. The association now offers access to two treadmills, two elliptical machines, weights, and other equipment in an onsite gym for its 135 employees, as well as a bike rack and sidewalks, which were installed after people requested additional places to walk.

"We want our workforce to be healthy and happy and to know that we're concerned about their well-being," Mary says. "There are organizations that use these kinds of things as a recruiting tool, and we're trying to get there with what we can offer. We formed a wellness committee this year to set goals and establish a philosophy so we can do even more."

Wellness programs like ONS's reflect a trend among employers, who have begun to realize that a healthier workforce means better productivity, less absenteeism, and more camaraderie among staff who exercise together. A study released in April by ADP, Inc., a provider of human resource management, payroll, and benefit administration services, reported that 79 percent of large and 44 percent of midsized companies offer wellness programs. Typically they include five or six different components, including weight-loss support, smoking-cessation resources, employee-assistance programs, health screenings, and exercise programs.

Many association health plans offer incentives and discounts to employees who reach certain goals, such as quitting smoking or reducing cholesterol, making wellness programs a way to keep rising insurance costs down. And beyond those benefits, a workplace wellness program can help organizations tangibly demonstrate their missions to employees.

Living the Mission

The American Medical Association has seen a number of benefits from its wellness initiative, says Gary Libretti Jr., MS, RD, LDN, CSCS, the association's wellness and benefits coordinator. AMA's wellness committee was formed in 2007 as a direct result of the organization's strategic initiatives.

"As a healthcare organization, especially one for physicians practicing the art and science of medicine, it must be our mission to provide the tools, knowledge, and opportunities our employees need to stay healthy or improve their health," he says. "The first step is making sure we have an integrated wellness culture. It's evident everywhere you go that wellness is part of our company."

At AMA's Chicago headquarters, which has about 1,000 employees, signs throughout its 16 floors of office space encourage employees to take the stairs. The cafeteria has expanded its nutrition labels, and TVs in the building highlight wellness events. Employees can participate in daily dance, yoga, tai chi, and other fitness classes, and the monthly Lunch & Learn series brings in guest speakers on wellness topics related to the current season or upcoming events.

In addition, AMA's cross-departmental wellness committee develops a calendar of activities each year, including the Healthy Lunch Club, Employee TV Turn-Off Week, and a wellness fair. In the summer, employees walk to a nearby farmer's market, where they learn how to turn fresh fruits and vegetables into delicious meals. In the winter, a biometric testing program measures employees' cholesterol and glucose levels, which they are encouraged to discuss with a physician. And a campaign called Maintain Not Gain offers strategies for getting through the holiday season without adding extra pounds.

Besides gaining the physical and mental benefits that come from staying or becoming healthy, AMA employees can track their activities in an online portal to earn points that translate into a discount on their healthcare premiums. Points are awarded for such simple healthy-lifestyle habits as wearing a seat belt, visiting a physician or dentist, or living tobacco-free. Earning 20,000 points translates into a $120 discount for the year.

AMA's wellness initiatives don't just apply to its headquarters staff. The 50 employees in its Washington, DC, office and 12 New Jersey employees also are invited to participate in any company-wide activities or may develop their own programming.

"Hopefully all these integrated activities will add up," Libretti says. "Between the classes, the signs, the events, we see people moving toward a healthier life. Things are trending in a beautiful direction—we are moving people from high-risk categories to low-risk categories."

Incentive to Succeed

Like AMA, the Ohio Hospital Association has seen then the value of building incentives into a wellness program. Although OHA has had a wellness committee since 2007, the effort recently got a major boost when it switched to an incentive-based program with Bravo Wellness and United Healthcare, which bases an employee's healthcare premiums on the results of screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, and other indicators. All of OHA's 64 employees participate, says Amber Yors, sales manager, data services, and a member of the wellness committee.

Through the program, Yors says, some employees who hadn't seen a doctor recently have learned about potentially dangerous health conditions. "People are finding out about numbers that are shocking to them. People who don't get physicals every year are finding out they have high cholesterol," she says. "Some staff members have made significant lifestyle changes through this program, such as quitting smoking cigarettes and losing weight."

Yors says the foundation of OHA's wellness program is making sure it fits easily into everyday life. For example, lunch menus are frequently revamped to be healthier and provide easy substitutions like fruit instead of cookies. Employees have formed lunchtime walking clubs and teams that participate in fundraising walks throughout the year. To support those activities, OHA reimburses up $200 in race and walk registration fees and will pay 50 percent of gym or exercise-class fees up to $325 per year.

Still, a few employees are reluctant to take part in these onsite walking clubs and teams—and those are the ones Yors has set her sights on. "We've had a core group of good support, and there's a smaller group that comes to work simply to work," she says. "That's one of the main goals of the wellness committee: to continue communicating and finding new ways to motivate people to participate."

Culture of Health

While the outcomes from a wellness initiative can be great, how do you first get employees to commit and then continue to make an effort? After all, it often seems like there aren't enough hours in the day for staff to get their regular work done, without trying to fit in exercise or attend a presentation on healthy eating.

The answer begins in your corner office, says Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Corporate Health and Wellness Association. "There are two things necessary to making a wellness program succeed: employee engagement and top-down support," she says. "You can't just implement a program and say, 'It's all on you now.' There has to be good communication in place."

Stephano says employers have a responsibility to provide employees with the tools they need to live healthier lives—and to provide time for them to use those tools during the workday. "There's an expectation that employees give 100 percent at the workplace," she says. "But if they are suffering from chronic conditions and leading an unhealthy life, it will impair their ability to do their job. You have to provide the tools and the time; what the employee does with the tools is on them."

At the National Association of College Stores, where some type of wellness program has been around for almost 20 years, the message to employees is that the busiest times are when it's most critical to eat right, exercise, get adequate rest, and take other steps to manage stress.

"Association people are busy people, and our organization is no different," says Karin Mayfield, human resources manager at NACS. "During our annual meeting, it's a high stress level, but we tell people it's good to work out that stress. If you have an active life and are eating healthy, it can only help you."

NACS has a health fair each year that includes cooking demonstrations, healthy snack samples, visits from Jazzercise and Zumba instructors, and various health screenings. Mayfield says 83 percent of the organization's 205 employees participated in the most recent fair, but that's just one component of a daily commitment to living healthy at work.

"We always promote physical fitness," she says. "We have a gym onsite and walking paths, and we do Five for Life, which encourages everyone to get 30 minutes of activity, five days a week, for life. In the spring we have participants fill out a chart for chances to win weekly prizes and grand prizes. We do it for six weeks to get everyone moving after the long winter."

NACS's safety and wellness committee develops an agenda at the start of each year; this year's theme is healthy nutrition and eating well. A nutrition expert came to speak to employees and demonstrate ways to cook healthier, and the association recently became part of Blue Sky, Green Fields. This initiative allows employees to go online and purchase locally grown organic produce at competitive prices, then have it delivered to the office.

"It's a priority for us because we want our employees to be healthy," Mayfield says. "It benefits them in all different ways, including low insurance renewal rates. It keeps our costs in check and makes us a more productive and effective workforce. You wouldn't believe how many people you see getting their tennis shoes on every day and going for a walk. We like the way it makes us feel and the way it makes us look. It's a big part of our overall culture."

It's also an extension of the culture of its members, she says. "Our members have a great sense of service, and one of their main goals is to serve on campus and give students what they need to succeed," she says. "In that same spirit, we want our employees to succeed and be healthy."

Jacqui Cook is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Starting on the Path to Wellness

If your association is interested in starting or adding to a wellness program, the Corporate Health and Wellness Association offers these tips to get started:

  • Approach a wellness provider or consultant who has worked with similar-sized organizations. One place to begin is with your health insurance provider to find out what resources and incentives are available to your employees.
  • Conduct a survey of employees to gauge their interest in a wellness program, onsite fitness classes, or walking clubs.
  • Evaluate your workforce's overall health. Speak to your insurance provider about evaluating claims history, chronic conditions, and where your expenditures are in areas that can be affected by lifestyle changes. Two important notes: This information is only an aggregate; privacy rules prohibit release of information about specific employees. Also, keep in mind that a wellness program should never be implemented in lieu of providing health insurance.
  • Form a committee to figure out how to engage your employees in the long term. Results will take time and dedication, as they do for individuals making lifestyle changes. Don't abandon an effort too quickly because it seems like it's not having the desired effect.
  • Organize social events and encourage behavior changes through modeling at every level of the organization. Consider developing a website customized to the wellness program. Get the CEO involved, profile employees who are making big changes, and put "health coaches" in every department to encourage staff.