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With healthcare costs soaring, many corporations are recognizing prevention as the most effective means of cutting illness and injury costs. With that in mind, many companies are promoting employee wellness through a variety of programs designed to increase fitness while decreasing the need for healthcare. According to the National Business Group on Health, 93 percent of companies it surveyed promote wellness among their employees.

The goal of most employee wellness programs is to promote a change in lifestyle, and at the top of the wellness list is employee awareness through education. Lectures, print materials, and group activities may be used to help employees find areas they can improve their health. Such programs might include information on how to recognize potential problems with such conditions as high blood pressure or diabetes. Educational programs help employees recognize their own potential dangers and head them off before medical intervention is required. Such programs may also offer support, helping people quit smoking or control their weight.

More and more, exercise is found to be critical not only for physical fitness, but for mental and emotional health as well. To that end, many companies are now incorporating physical activities in their wellness programs. This goal may be achieved in many ways, from company-subsidized gym memberships to actually installing a workout center on site. Other ways to fitness might include company sports teams and regularly-scheduled “walk breaks.” Some companies offer incentives for weight-loss, and may provide healthful food choices at employee cafeterias. There is help available to corporations seeking better employee wellness. Area hospitals offer educational seminars on wellness for corporations, with on-staff trainers, nutritionists, and educators. Some businesses seek outside help in constructing a wellness program, outsourcing to companies that can handle all aspects of a program, from education to specific individual and group activities.

Business Health

The Midwest Business Group on Health, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, provides education and resources to a coalition of public and private employers who come together to try out tools and projects on wellness, to share experiences, and to learn the latest trends and management techniques in that area. According to MBGH President and CEO Larry Boress, “It would appear that there is now sufficient experience among employers as well as research in the academic field to support the idea that, by keeping healthy people healthy, you can reduce long-term costs of healthcare.”

He recognizes the growing problem of obesity and its resultant health problems, stating that those problems can be headed off with education and awareness.

Wellness programs come at a cost, but companies are finding that funding fitness is a worthwhile investment, saving long-term time and money. Boress states, “Focusing on population health rather than just those with chronic conditions, you can keep your population healthier, which will ultimately reduce your costs and increase productivity.” For example, Bank of America claims a $6 return on every $2 invested in wellness, through decreased employee absenteeism and increased work output.

In Chicago, Quaker Foods has reported that the results of its wellness program for 1,200 employees included 22 percent fewer hospital admission (and shorter stays), as well as 42 percent lower expenses as compared with other corporate divisions. In addition, long-term disability costs were reduced by 40 percent. According to an article by the New America Foundation, at the end of 2007, corporate giant Johnson & Johnson had saved an estimated $15.9 million on healthcare costs through its employee wellness program. That company incorporates a variety of awareness and fitness programs, including the “Move It and Make It Matter” program, where employees were supplied with pedometers and encouraged to take the 10,000 steps per day that is suggested for basic fitness.

Every company can find a way to promote fitness. For example, a business might provide partial or complete funding for such things as employee Weight Watchers memberships, athletic supplies, or entry fees for athletic participation events. A company might hire on-site medical personnel, such as a nurse-practitioner who can write prescriptions, to save costs of lost time to go visit a doctor. Some companies even offer financial incentives to employees, hoping to reduce health risks. One popular option is a payroll deduction plan for a discounted membership to a gym. Surveys have found that this is a popular choice, as workers can budget for the amount. In addition, studies have found that since workers feel they are already paying for the program they are more likely to take advantage of it.

According to the public policy institute New America, an educational program called “Corporate Athlete” has been implemented by such companies as Pepsico, Merrill Lynch, Procter & Gamble, and Dell. The program, developed by the Human Performance Institute in Florida, relies on education to inspire workers to aim for healthier lifestyles. Survey results by Procter & Gamble show that employees who have taken part in the program are more focused at work, more engaged at home, and have improved their physical energy. The program has been aimed at office workers, but P & G hopes to extend it to line workers as well.

At the other extreme, S.C. Johnson, in Racine, Wisconsin, is perhaps an example of an ultimate fitness effort. The company offers employees a 146-acre park complete with sports fields, an aquatic complex, and an indoor recreation center. No wonder it often makes national lists of best places to work.

Corporate wellness programs are not just a fad, and in fact may be a necessity for corporate fiscal health. Employees who are fit and healthy miss less work and are more alert and productive. In addition, since expanding health costs require higher deductibles, such programs produce lower healthcare costs, along with less tangible benefits, including reduced stress, better morale and company loyalty, and improved work performance.

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