Workplace Wellness Initiatives

In an attempt to reduce the high costs of insurance, companies are discovering the benefits of helping employees get and stay healthy.

Workplace wellness. A term with a lot of meanings, some formal, some not. One thing is clear, though. Many companies are now placing priority on helping their employees get healthy and stay healthy. Why so?

For one, healthy employees make happy employees, so say some companies. Healthy employees work better. The holy grail is that healthy employees will impact the cost of the employer’s insurance coverage. So whatever a company can do to decrease that cost turns out to be a good thing.

Workplace wellness programs come in many styles…from healthy snacks in the vending machines and feel-good posters on the walls to health coaches and fitness centers in the building. Smoking cessation and weight loss programs are common workplace wellness efforts. A wide range of offerings take a proactive approach aimed at helping employees spot dangerous health conditions or prevent them altogether.

Some efforts, like bringing in a guest speaker to teach a seminar on nutrition or adding a mural to the wall are easy to do, but hard to quantify results. It’s easy to track how much weight someone has lost, or what their blood pressure is. But do these programs change long-time habits? Sometimes. A new trend in wellness uses a different approach by measuring actual physiological changes brought on by healthier eating and exercise. In these programs, employees can receive lower insurance premiums not for losing weight or tracking gym attendance, but by lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index.

The Workplace Wellness Alliance estimates a direct return on investment of $3.27 for every $1 spent on workplace wellness. Some programs can generate annual savings of up to $700 per employee by reducing absenteeism and increasing worker productivity.

A 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Labor found that more than 90 percent of companies with 200 or more employees offered some form of wellness program, while only one-third of companies with less than 50 employees did. The same study indicated that it’s not clear whether the investment in workplace wellness is generating profit for the employer. That’s because of the companies studied, only about 20 percent of employees were taking advantage of the wellness program.

The bottom line of a workplace wellness program is that employers are helping their employees recognize risky habits, change them, and ultimately do better at getting and staying healthy. Does this add up to insurance savings for the employer? In some cases, yes.

Several GAWDA suppliers and distributors have established workplace wellness programs. Below are the stories of several distributor businesses and their experience with such programs.

Wellness That Works

While participation in the wellness program at Maine Oxy-Acetylene Company (Auburn, ME) is not mandatory, all employees covered by the company’s health insurance must have a biometric screening and a third-party health coach who helps employees set goals. Employees are required to meet at least quarterly with the health coach. Customized programs are developed and include smoking cessation, weight loss and others. The company does not have vending machines on site. Maine Oxy’s Director of Business Affairs Carl Paine says the assessments and goals help keep employees focused on achieving and maintaining good health, and this has an impact on insurance premiums. While the market is experiencing a 12 to 22 percent rise in costs, Paine anticipates a slight or no increase. “Keeping our costs steady, and in some instances reducing them is a wonderful reward for everyone’s efforts,” he says. Maine Oxy pays a little more than 90 percent of the cost of insurance for each employee.

Keen Kares

With healthcare being the second largest expense after wages, “Keen Kares” started in 2011 at Keen Compressed Gas Co. (Wilmington, DE) with the intent of getting some control over double-digit annual increases in insurance costs while improving the quality of life for its 103 employees. Employees who receive company health insurance are required to participate in the program. Spouses of insureds can also participate. The company pays 75 percent of the employee’s insurance premium, but if the employee takes advantage of all the incentives, their payment is reduced from 25 percent to 20 percent.

A committee of six employees develops promotions for physical activity, team competitions, education and more. The Keen Kares committee raises awareness via e-newsletters, informative flyers in paychecks and contests with incentives. A recent Biggest Loser contest awarded cash prizes from $500 to $1000. Another contest counted steps taken over the course of a month on employer-donated pedometers. Many programs are team-oriented to make them fun and competitive. The company also pays entry fees for employees who participate in a local run. At group meetings, there are healthy food alternatives, and breakfast meetings now include fruit and bagels, instead of just donuts.

Once a year, employees are given a biometric screening that analyzes blood pressure, glucose, pulse rate, body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels. Performed on-site, the screening takes only 20 minutes and is done by a third-party that provides personal and confidential individual reports, along with a company aggregate report that provides the number of employees tested, how many had high BMI, extremely high BMI, diabetes risk, etc. This information is used to help focus on common risk factors among employees and deliver information to help them understand the risks and alternative behaviors to help eliminate the risks. The aggregate report gives an indicator of year-over-year measurements and whether the company is moving in the right direction. President Bryan Keen acknowledges the difficulty of quantifying a few less people smoking or a couple of significant weight losses. “It’s very hard to measure results, but we hope for less people calling in sick, less missed work time, and if we affect one or two employees to change for the better, that’s a lot. It’s a good investment in our people.”

Team Twinkies, the winner of Keen Kares’ first Biggest Losers Contest, hold (or eat) their winning gift cards.

Happy and Healthy

The goal of Noble Gas Solution’s (Albany, NY) wellness program is to promote employee morale by making the workplace “fun and active” for its 40 employees. A health and wellness committee meets monthly to create activities that improve the recognition of wellness and gets employees moving, rather than sitting at their desks all day. Now in its third year, activities include things like March Nerf Madness, a round-robin competition among employees and branches. A Buddy Walk encourages employees to walk in pairs or groups before or after work, or during lunch time, with prizes for those who walk the most over the course of eight weeks. Prizes are typically gift cards. Each month, a different fruit is available in the employee lunchroom along with healthy recipes that incorporate it. A 50/50 raffle provides the money to purchase the next month’s fruit; the other half goes to the winning employee. During summer months, a farmer’s market set up onsite sells local fruits and vegetables to employees. Company vending machines contain 40 percent healthy choices, including trail mix instead of potato chips. Chris Brignola, Noble’s purchasing manager and chair of the health and wellness committee, says the program is not set up to garner a reduction in insurance payments. “Our goal,” he says, “is to achieve a healthier and happier staff.”

Employees do the Buddy Walk before or after work, or during lunch time.

WOW: Working On Wellness

In addition to supporting prevention, early detection and management of health conditions for its 85 employees, another reason Cee Kay Supply (St. Louis, MO) established its wellness program in 2010 was to get a handle on the company’s health insurance costs, according to Jean Lindsey, director of finance. A third-party service provider administers the program, which includes a comprehensive health screening that identifies risks for heart disease, stroke, prostate health, kidney and liver function, diabetes, thyroid disorders and more. Individual results are confidential. Cee Kay receives an aggregate group result, which provides an idea as to how well the program is working. Last year, overall cholesterol counts among all employees improved five percent, and weight loss numbers indicated employees were becoming more active.

Smoking cessation and weight loss classes are offered, as are nutrition and health seminars during brown-bag-lunch meetings. Employees can join fitness and nutrition teams, and participate in charity walks, many of which Cee Kay pays the registration fee. Company-wide challenges are common, like “Step-It-Up,” with the goal of 10,000 steps the first week, 20,000 the second. Points are given for the number of minutes of exercise, the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten, etc. Incentives include gas, grocery and retail gift cards, and sometimes cash. Says Lindsey, “We are not asking employees to run a marathon. These are ‘baby-step’ challenges. We want people to try to make one lifestyle change, perhaps just taking a walk after work with their children or dog.” A health coach is available to every employee. Cee Kay owns its vending machines but has not been able to find a supplier to stock them with healthy choices. Suppliers and vendors have been asked not to bring donuts when they visit.

Cee Kay pays $150 per screening, and now that it is offered to spouses, a screening could cost $300 per employee. The company receives no discounts from its insurer for having a wellness program. However, the screening is tied in with the insurance premium paid by the employee. Cee Kay pays up to 80 percent of the cost of insurance if the employee participates in the screenings. “We knew coming in that we could measure attendance and productivity,” says Lindsey, “and we hope people are more fit, less tired and, as a result, will be safer doing their jobs. We believe that healthy employees make happy employees.” In 2012, Cee Kay Supply was named one of the healthiest companies in the region by the St. Louis Business Journal.

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