Workplace Wellness: A Whole New Ball Game

By Dennis Boone

Companies trying to crack the riddle of health-insurance costs turn to outside experts for help fashioning effective programs.

It has come to this: America’s “obesity epidemic”—a formulation that suggests you could be infected with an extra pound or two from someone
else’s three-kilo cheeseburger—has prom-pted calls for a Fat Tax on the likes of sodas, candy, chips and fast food.

The Metric System | Outside companies, like LifeTime Fitness, are using objective criteria from health-risk assessments to help companies achieve their goals of improving overall employee health and fitness.

“It’s not just exercise; it’s not just diet.It’s a comprehensive view of wellness that requires a fundamental change in your approach to it.” Gregg Laiben, medical director,Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City

And yet, counter-intuitive as it may seem with America’s collective health going over a cliff, these are great days for Greg Justice of AYC Health & Fitness in Prairie Village. Reason: More business owners and human-resources executives, saddled with increasing health insurance premiums and unsatisfactory results from in-house wellness efforts, are turning to outsiders to structure well-ness programs that really work.

“It’s very good business for us, right now,” Justice says. “More and more, businesses are demanding healthier work forces. Consequently, they’re bringing in third parties like AYC to take care of on-site programs, because if it’s on-site, you will have a much higher compliance rate if you make it convenient.”

Justice hit on just one aspect of what executives in health-related concerns say must be a multi-pronged approach to effective wellness programming. Other success factors—and there are many—are needed for companies trying to realize true bottom-line impact from improving their employees’ health.

Among those factors, identified by fitness professionals, health-care pro-viders and insurers in the region:

Executive leadership.

No matter what a company’s wellness-programming structure, says Vic Perrin of the YMCA, success is grounded in executive leadership. “It starts at the top,” he said. “If you’ve got top leadership all about promoting wellness within the ranks, you’re going to have some good follow-through” with employees getting involved.

Peer involvement.

After buy-in from the leadership, says Justice, “if you have peer pressure built in as well, if your co-workers are showing more productivity and energy, it puts more pressure on the cubical mate next to them” to get on board with wellness programming—and stick with it.

When? Where? How much?

Successful wellness programs, Justice said, solve the three-way riddle of time, location and cost. If a program is readily accessible by being on-site, if it’s subsidized or even free, and if it’s easily incorporated into a workday schedule, employers will realize better results.

Modifying behaviors.

“Most people simply can’t exercise enough to lose weight to any great degree,” said Gregg Laiben of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City. “At some point, you have to decrease what you put in your mouth, too. So it’s not just exercise, it’s not just diet: It’s a comprehensive view of wellness that requires a fundamental change in your approach to it.” Successful wellness programs embrace the need for that change, he said.

Understanding motivations.

“When you talk about someone’s individual health, there are different reasons for wanting to be healthy,” Laiben said. “Unfortunately, not enough programs can find the motivator for each individual, the key to that person’s success. A company with 2,000 employees may not be able to determine 2,000 different incentives, but most employees will often react to a financial inducement.”

Going metric.

You wouldn’t think of operating a production line without defined metrics that gauge success; why would a wellness program be different? Tom Nikkola, director of nutrition and weight management for Minneapolis-based LifeTime Fitness, said successful programs must be built on objective measures. LifeTime’s corporate wellness program starts with comprehensive health risk assessment for every employee. “If they’re doing the right thing, they will see changes in those measurements,” he said. “Those are all controllable by lifestyle and nutrition choices.”

A three-stakeholder approach.

The most effective wellness plans, professionals say, are the ones that represent the interests of the three primary stakeholders: The business, the employee and the insurer. Without ensuring that each comes away with a win, most programs won’t have a successful foundation.

All of those factors are pillars of an effective strategy, health professionals say. With those in place, companies are embracing innovative ways to produce healthier staffs:

Cultural changes.

This can start with something as simple as discouraging doughnuts at office meetings, or finding ways to celebrate employee birthdays and other special occasions without the standby sheet cake and ice cream.

Active-lifestyle incentives.

Truman Medical Centers, with 4,300 employees, is not only a health-care provider, but has work-force wellness needs of its own. One tactic, said Cici Rojas, vice president for community engagement, is a paid time-off “bank.” Employees can draw against the value of their accrued time off to buy bicycles, health-club memberships or various other hospital-approved means of maintaining fitness.

Change the access.

Laiben, of Blue KC, said candy and snack cakes and salty foods are yielding to fresh fruits and vegetables in vending machines at some workplaces. Soda machines? Going away, as well, or reloaded with healthier drinks. Blue KC, in fact, subsidizes healthy lunch fare like salads from the company cafeteria; the fried chicken-eaters pay full price. And good luck finding cigarette machines at almost any company these days.

Dedicate the space.

Many companies, Justice said, write off on-site exercise programs, citing lack of physical space. But it needn’t be exclusive use, he said; meeting rooms are frequently vacant for long periods each day and can easily accommodate a 30-min-ute yoga or aerobics class. Even a little activity makes a big difference, he said.

Get creative with incentives.

Whether it’s a rebate program on health-care premiums for those who follow a fitness regimen, cash bonuses, additional time off or subsidized health-club memberships, companies will realize more success if they can give people reasons to get off the couch, and stay off.

Give it time—then give it more.

Approaching the end of their third full year, Truman Medical Center’s programs, Rojas said, are only now seeing meaningful results “It’s taken that long to see this collection of activities staring to make a difference,” she said. “We do know from a patient perspective that what works is a coaching model. We have wellness coaches, on the phone or on-site, case managers, really, and they have to get to know someone to understand what obstacles exist in their personal life to keep from participating in wellness programs. But we are starting to see results.”

All of those approaches can help companies move the needle on their work-force fitness levels, Laiben said. But on a macro scale, the Fat Fight requires the kind of comprehensive approach the nation embraced when the crackdown on smoking began two generations ago—restricted sales, higher taxes, limits on advertising and other tools. “It did not go from 50 percent of the population smoking down to 25 percent overnight,” he said. “It took 20 to 40 years. We’re in this for the long haul.”