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Get Fit

By Cherri Gann

How much did your company's healthcare costs increase this year? Every business manager and owner greets this tough topic with a pained expression and a heavy sigh. Last year, the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) released a survey in which 130 CEOs were asked, "What cost is your company's greatest concern?" Healthcare costs topped the list of 43 percent of those surveyed, and they present a fundamental conundrum. Is this crisis an economic or health problem? The solutions thrown at it are economic for sure: increasing employees' premium costs, higher co-pays, reduction of benefits, employee driven healthcare plans and health savings accounts. But are any of these really helping?

According to HERO, these cost control approaches are questionable at best for the long haul. Why? Because the problem stems from both health and economic issues. The bulk of Americans' health concerns have to do with lifestyle. Obesity, smoking, poor physical conditioning, inability to manage stress and lousy nutrition are all examples of these daily life choices that associate with half to 70 percent of all illnesses and medical problems.

Through research, HERO and others have found that employees with these high-risk factors have higher healthcare costs when compared with those having lower or no risk. With this in mind, there is increasing interest in employee health management in the form of company fitness and wellness programs to reduce health risks, optimize employees' physical and mental conditions and moderate cost increases.

Fitness and Wellness Programs
Offered by more than half of large companies, employee fitness programs entail an exercise component to increase physical activity via workout equipment, exercise classes and walking and running clubs. A wellness element is also often included and addresses lifestyle factors such as nutrition, weight and stress management, smoking cessation and screenings for cancer, blood pressure and cholesterol. Some programs even include recreational sports such as basketball, softball, tennis or volleyball.

Full-time employees trained in these respective areas may operate these programs in-house, or companies may out-source them to other businesses specializing in corporate fitness programs.

The prevailing research shows that for every $1 spent on an employee fitness and wellness program, a company can save $3 in the form of reduced medical claims, absenteeism, short-term disability claims and workers' compensation claims. For example, in 1990 Union Pacific started its program targeting employees with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excess weight and smoking for an annual cost of about $50 per person and achieved a benefit cost ratio of $2.77 for every $1 spent-a net savings of $1.26 million.

The Journal of Occupational Medicine published a survey profiling Johnson & Johnson, Inc. that concluded the company's medical claims' cost dropped by an average of $225 per person after it started its program a decade ago. The annual savings company-wide totaled about $5 million.

Although the majority of large companies do offer some type of fitness/wellness program among their employee benefits, the programs aren't limited to Fortune 500s. Gail Fast, vice president of marketing for L&T Health and Fitness, a fitness management and consulting company based in Falls Church, Virginia, says, "We have businesses of all sizes as clients, and the programs are for all companies. Research about the return on investment for employee fitness programs is available, and smaller companies can benefit from them as well."

Workouts Work
What are the benefits of an employee fitness program? "For employees, the programs provide stress reduction, increased employee morale and satisfaction, and general health and wellness," says Rachel Reese, MS, assistant program manager for Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Health Fitness Corporation. "Employers see increased productivity and reductions in healthcare costs. There's also a decrease in loss of workdays due to employee illness."

According to Theodore Sadowski, supervisor of fitness centers for Computer Associates in Islandia, New York, "Besides using fewer sick days and showing increased productivity, healthy and fit employees tend to have more energy throughout the day," he says. "There's also improved psychological well-being and decreased anxiety and stress. When an employee feels fit, his or her self-image improves, and this leads to better performance. If you feel good about yourself, then you'll do better. Better performance means greater productivity for the employer."

Sadowski also believes the company's commitment to offering such a premier benefit helps attract and keep top-flight talented employees. "With employee fitness programs, you get the feeling of corporate support for health and well-being," he says. "It sends the message, 'We care about you.'"

Well Workplace
Why is the workplace a good setting for encouraging fitness, weight management and other healthy lifestyle habits? America spends more money on healthcare than any industrialized nation, but, ironically, we aren't the healthiest people. Most of us get little to no exercise. And, unless you've been living on another planet lately, you may have heard the repeated reports that more than half of Americans are overweight.

The worksite is an ideal setting to address health and well-being because not only do the majority of Americans work, but they also spend most of their waking hours there. As the primary purchasers of healthcare insurance, employers have a vested interest in health-related issues. It makes sense for them to address poor health habits with their employees because unnecessary medical care costs consume corporate profits.

These bad habits eat up employees' paychecks, too, in the form of higher premiums, less money available for salary increases or bonuses and maybe even the cancellation of some benefits provided by the company.

A company-sponsored or subsidized wellness program has one huge advantage-convenience. "Worksite wellness is the best because it is right there," says Fast. "We find that even screenings garner great participation because some company leave policies make it inconvenient for employees to go for doctor appointments where they would typically have this done. When you can have your blood pressure taken or cholesterol reading done right at the workplace during a simple a 10-minute break as opposed to a two-hour leave time from the office, employees will even pay the fee for doing it rather than taking time off from work to go to the doctor."

Keys to Success
There are several keys needed for employee fitness programs to be successful, and this is where distributors are most helpful.

Once initiated, promotion and support is needed to make an employee fitness program a hit. First, promote the benefits of health and fitness to management and employees. All must realize they should put a priority on fitness by using pamphlets, films, speakers, quizzes, contests, challenges and newsletters. However, so a fitness program won't go over as one more chore to be performed during the workday, you have to sell it as the benefit it is.

"Good marketing is very important," says Reese. "Having a program that the employees feel is beneficial to them and getting that word out are key. They sit at a desk all day and are stressed, so they should be able to enjoy participating."

Second, "regardless of your company size, you must have senior management support," says Fast. "Employees have to know it's okay to participate in the program. There's a thing in the U.S. about leaving our desks. People eat at their desks because they don't want to go out to lunch and seem unproductive. If you don't have senior support to say, for example, 'It's okay to use a lunch period to work out and then eat something at your desk afterwards,' then it won't be successful."

Opportunities for Promotion
Prospects for promotion abound right from the beginning before anyone has even broken a sweat. If you're lucky enough to get in on the ground floor, there should be a rollout campaign that includes the initial message delivery to get employees ready to think about wellness.

During the pre-assessment period of the programs, giveaways such as drinkware, stickers, lunch coolers or t-shirts may be used to help generate excitement as employees see increased participation among their colleagues. These products can be used in established programs, too, for new or just now interested employees.

Finally, various related activities-such as national health and fitness observances, charitable walks and fun runs-are ideal for an employee fitness program to embrace and serve as additional promotional opportunity.

On the American Heart Association's website, there is a sample module for its "Living The Active Life" worksite fitness program, which suggests promotional products such as apparel, clocks, pedometers, recognition items and waist packs. It also includes incentives such as gift certificates, entertainment tickets, movie passes and food discounts. Can you come up with ideas for ancillary items to make those latter rewards a little more special at presentation time?

"We've run a 'Reach The Beach' program that begins in the spring when employees are getting ready to get in shape for the summer," says Fast. "Participants' tasks include such things as setting an exercise goal and answering nutrition quizzes. When the program is completed successfully, participants win a beach-themed prize. We run several similar programs and tie in different products."

"We've held contests for 'Fitness Fanatics' or other exercise challenges," says Sadowski. "And, we've also built activities around staying fit through the holidays. Anytime the participants can win something, they try harder."

Future Investment
"Keeping healthy employees healthy is less expensive than a well employee who becomes sick," says Fast. "If you have medical claim costs for someone who has multiple risk factors such as hypertension and high cholesterol, then you know that person is at high risk for a stroke or heart attack and may visit the doctor often or is on medication-and this costs money.

"We've found that low risk employees who start out healthy but aren't encouraged to remain healthy may incur negative lifestyle changes and develop high risk factors," Fast says. "And they are more expensive than those who stayed at high risk. There's a misconception among some employers that because employees are healthy now, there's no need to do anything for them. But you've really got to keep them healthy if you don't want to incur costs down the road. Strong employee fitness programs do that."

Cherri Gann is an associate editor for PPB.

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