A Publication of WTVP

They’re not exactly new, but here in 2010, employee wellness initiatives are certainly hitting their iPod-blaring, Nike Shox-wearing, fitness goals-sharing stride.

From small, independent companies, to publicly traded behemoths, and even to state governments, employee wellness programs are being utilized all across the country. Not only do these programs provide the obvious physical benefits to employees, they also help keep health insurance premium costs down.

According to Melba Newsome’s November 2009 article in Time magazine, starting July 2010, state workers in North Carolina who smoke will be moved from a plan that covers 80 percent of their health care costs to a plan that covers 70 percent. It might not seem like much, but that’s an out-of-pocket difference of nearly $500 per year. Their option? Enroll in a smoking-cessation program.

The state also plans on imposing the same penalties for the obese beginning in 2011. The determining factor in these cases will be an employee’s body mass index (BMI). If it’s above a certain range, the worker must participate in a weight-loss program.

Penalties, however, take the hard-line stance. Rather than penalizing employees for their unhealthy habits, many companies’ wellness programs offer incentives to change their lifestyles. The incentive-based programs usually offer some kind of discount on an employee’s premium costs and don’t mandate participation. Newsome cited the Safeway supermarket chain’s wellness program. Safeway employees who voluntarily take and pass tests for ailments such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can reduce their annual premiums by as much as $800.

Health Alliance Medical Plans in Urbana, Illinois, recently kicked off its employee wellness program, Vitality for Life. Program Administrator Karen Stefaniak oversees a great number of activities designed to help keep Health Alliance employees healthy, including a Biggest Loser competition, walking program and blood pressure screenings. Incentives consist of monetary prizes, gift cards, water bottles, T-shirts, cookbooks, food journals, hand weights and healthy snack packs.

A big obstacle, however, is keeping employees motivated without the use of penalties or a mandate.

“For employee wellness programs to be successful, there needs to be a willingness to participate on the part of the employee,” said Stefaniak. “Many people already feel that they are under a considerable amount of stress due to time constraints. In fact, the No. 1 reason people give for not exercising on a regular basis is lack of time. A mandatory program could easily add to this stress.”

Stefaniak added that getting employees involved in the decision making regarding their wellness program can have positive effects.

“Companies may want to consider conducting an employee survey to find out what types of wellness programs people would participate in if offered,” she said. “This is a good way to send a message to employees that the company is anxious to design programs to their liking. Based on the survey, a variety of programs can be incorporated so that there is something for everyone in the program package and more people are likely to get involved.”

Research shows that employee wellness initiatives work. They help with productivity by reducing absenteeism and can save a great deal of money in healthcare costs.

A fact sheet released by the Obama administration in May detailed wellness program results from several major companies in the U.S. In 2007, Johnson & Johnson avoided an estimated $15.9 million in healthcare costs through its health initiatives. Likewise, Connecticut-based Pitney Bowes’ efforts to boost employee participation in its wellness programs have resulted in a savings of $40 million within the last decade.

Even Microsoft has gotten involved. According to the White House release, the software giant creates personalized health goals and has a staff of doctors that makes house calls to avoid emergency room visits. Its obesity program assigns employees to a primary care doctor, behavior health specialist and nutritionist, and the company provides free, healthy meals to eat onsite or take home. Through this commitment to wellness, Microsoft has seen very low premium growth and an all-around healthier workforce than companies with employees of similar age.

The statistics are out there, the programs are available and customizable, and now’s the time to take charge. Employee wellness initiatives create a healthy, happy, productive workforce, and a productive workforce equals success. But there is a time commitment involved, and Stefaniak says a sound, elaborate plan is key.

“If employee wellness programs are going to be successful, they need to be well thought out and clearly communicated,” Stefaniak said. “Sometimes, particularly in smaller companies, finding an employee who has the time and is willing to take a leadership role to make sure a solid plan is in place can be a challenge. Organizing a wellness committee comprised of several employees that will share the responsibility of program planning and implementation is a good way to get more people involved.”

So if your company doesn’t yet have a wellness plan in place, take the necessary steps today to get one up and running. You won’t find any organization that doesn’t like saving money. There’s no time like the present. iBi