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Workplace Wellness

Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 1:38 PM

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Companies are taking a more active role in employee health, and workplace wellness programs are on the rise. ideastream's Anne Glausser has the story.

I’m standing on Muffin Lane, a road tucked into an industrial park in Cuyahoga Falls that’s home to Main Street Gourmet.

As I enter the factory, there’s a permeating smell of baked goods…. and today, it’s blueberry muffins in the ovens. 

But I’m not here for the treats - tempting as they are - I’m here to talk health…employee health…and what workplaces like Main Street Gourmet are doing to improve it.

The company sponsored a 12 week Biggest Loser weight loss competition, modeled after the popular TV show.  Today, they’re announcing the results.

STOUGHTON: Total loss was 311 pounds so good job everybody.  That was a lot of weight to lose for only like 42 people, so you all did a great job.

Organizer Angie Stoughton presides over a stack of giant paper checks made out to the tune of $50-100 each - and she announces that they’re bringing in a guest host to reveal the competition’s top losers:

Laughing/clapping

STOUGHTON: Everybody welcome, Charlie Sheen.

Well, not really Charlie Sheen—that’s Product Development Director Dan Maurer playing the part, and the audience is loving it. 

MAURER:  Thank you. I don’t know why I’m here for a bunch of losers cause I’m winning but…you’ve exercised, you’ve watched what you’ve eaten, to be the losingest loser. Even puried kale and cucumbers to drink -vintage balderdash. 

The irony of a holding a weight loss competition at a baked goods factory isn’t lost on workers here:  it takes a lot of willpower, they tell me, to resist the sample trays.

VITON : Well, I have lost some weight, which you can see I need to…

For workers like Renee Viton, the competition has given her a support network as she tries to lose weight. 

VITON: The buddy system is very important and I’m glad that we have it at this workplace. 

More companies are starting up wellness programs like Main Street Gourmet’s. There’s been a considerable increase over the last decade—on the order of 20%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and some surveys estimate more dramatic increases.  Mainstreet Gourmet kicked off its wellness program in 2007 as a way to encourage employees to live healthier.  It was a first for Renee Viton. 

VITON:  Of all the jobs I’ve had, this is the only place that has the wellness program. And if I were somewhere else that didn’t have it, I don’t think I’d care about my weight.  I would just continue doing what I been doing. 

So how do these programs work?  Well, there’s no universal formula – in fact, there’s probably as many variations as there are businesses adopting them.  Some emphasize the “fun” element, while others may take a more serious tack, doing things like encouraging employees to undergo “health risk assessments,” often through a yearly screening.

Dr. Linda Spurlock, Director of Human Health at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History & judge for the museum’s recent Wellness@Work awards ceremony--explains what a screening like this might involve:

SPURLOCK:  There are two aspects to a yearly health screening.  One would be where there were nurses there to take your blood pressure and your glucose and help measure your waist, circumference and your weight to get a body mass index.  They would take a little bit of blood also to get a lipid profile.  And then another part would be a questionnaire that you fill out about your lifestyle.  And good companies even want to know about your spouse’s lifestyle, and then they’ll give you some feedback about that and tell you what’s risky, what’s going on in your life that you might think about changing.

Sharing your health profile with your employer might make some wary.

Main Street Gourmet’s Director of Human Resources Philip Plumley explains how their company navigated this:

PLUMLEY:  Once we were able to explain well enough to them exactly what’s going on - especially who will and will not have access to their information - once they saw that it was pretty secure and all the reports that we get generally are just an aggregate for the group rather than specifics, then a lot of that backed off. 

At Main Street Gourmet, if you complete a health screening, you earn points toward a cash prize.  You can also earn points if you participate in challenges like the Healthy Lunch-Box or Commit to Get Fit, or if you take a stress-reduction seminar or join a group exercise class.  If you rack up enough points over the year, they cut you a $200 check.

And programs like these are in fact improving health, says Dr. Spurlock:

SPURLOCK:  It’s more than a friendly competition.  These are actually yielding measureable results in people’s health, things like cholesterol and weight and blood pressure. 

But companies that are starting up workplace wellness programs have to make a crucial decision:  do you offer rewards for healthy behavior - like Main Street Gourmet - or do you punish unfit employees, by raising their healthcare premiums?

It’s a classic carrot versus stick dilemma, and to help understand it, I caught up with Christel Turner, an attorney specializing in this area who is part of Fit Happens!, an organization that helps companies run wellness programs.  When it comes to punishing unhealthy employees with higher premiums, she says:

TURNER: It’s a fine line.

You can do it-

TURNER: But it is, it’s a risk.

For one thing, she says, there’s the possibility of discrimination lawsuits.  She points to companies like the supermarket chain Safeway, Johnson & Johnson, and local employer Scotts Miracle-Gro that offer reduced premiums to healthy employees.

TURNER:  …and they, they’ve had some flack from some employees…it’s a question: is it going to lead to a breakdown of morale among employees?

Another local employer – the Cleveland Clinic - has been everything but cautious in promoting good health.  It’s banned trans fats and sugary soda in the cafeteria, and flat out refuses to hire smokers.  It offers free yoga classes and gym memberships.  And for 2011 employees can get a 17% rebate on their health insurance premium (we’re talking $400-500 a family here) for going to their doctor and following a personalized wellness plan.  No matter if you’re healthy or at risk, to get the rebate you’ve got to see your doctor and log your hours in the gym, or attend weight watchers, things like that. Otherwise, you’re paying more for your health insurance than your proactive peer.

TERPELUK:  It’s huge.

Dr. Paul Terpeluk, the Clinic’s Medical Director of Employee Health Services

TERPELUK:  And all you have to do is go to the doctor and do what you have to do.  Think about that for a minute: If you understand behavioral change - that’s how you change behavior - you incentivize people, but then you make it easy for them to be accountable. That’s the secret.

Wellness programs appear to be paying off for employers as well.  Chuck Fowler, CEO of Chardon-based Fairmount Minerals, credits his company’s program for significant savings:

FOWLER:  Our medical costs were over two million dollars less than our peers, for 2010, and it’s that way every year. So it pays, it doesn’t cost.

And Fairmount Minerals isn’t alone.  Katherine Baicker, health economics professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, authored a recent study that found workplace wellness programs can be good for a business’ bottomline:

BAICKER: Every dollar spent on a wellness program seemed to be associated with more than three dollars in savings for the employer through healthcare costs or reduced absenteeism.  And that’s a really large effect.

With healthcare costs and chronic, preventable diseases both on the rise… employers are fighting back.  Seems to be a win-win situation - as long as we’re willing to have our employers get “hands on” with our health.

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