Wellness Pays


Wellness PaysEncouraging Health and Fitness at Work Can Yield Dividends

By Rosanne Dunkelberger and Maria Mallory White

First the bad news:

No matter how healthy your work force might be, employee health insurance premiums will probably never go down, unless your company is self-insured or extremely large.

But the very, very good news is that, by taking steps to support the health of their employees, business leaders can see real bottom-line, positive results. And that doesn’t mean they have to go out and buy gym memberships for their employees or serve them healthful lunches – although some firms have done that and more – and they don’t have to go it alone.

The Okaloosa County Health Department learned these lessons firsthand. A few years ago, the agency’s director, Dr. Karen Chapman, and her management team decided that as purveyors of public health, their employees ought to do more than talk the talk. “We recognized about five years ago that we really need to promote healthy lifestyles in our community,” Chapman explains. “If we’re going to go out and preach healthy lifestyles, we should be practicing them ourselves.”

Poor diet, sedentary lifestyles and high-risk behaviors such as smoking are endemic among Americans these days. Chapman and her colleagues realized that their employees and local constituents were simply participants in a greater trend toward ill health that has overtaken this nation. She was determined to affect change, however. “The problem is that people in our communities practice unhealthy lifestyles,” she says. “We can’t do something about your genetics, but we can do something about educating people” and encouraging new behaviors.

So Chapman went looking for a cost-effective, results-oriented program that could be tailored to her organization’s specific needs. Along the way, she found approaches that just didn’t cut it, says the 21-year veteran of public health. Then she found the Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA) and its Well Workplaces initiative.

WELCOA offers a “7 Cs” strategy for becoming a Well Workplace, and none of them require a huge outlay of cash. (A business’s cost to join WELCOA is just $365 per year.) The first benchmark is capturing senior-level support – in other words, getting the company CEO and top management to sanction the effort. “They have to live it, walk it and not just talk it,” Chapman says.

The next steps include creating a wellness team, collecting data to drive health efforts, crafting an operating plan, choosing appropriate interventions, creating a supportive environment and consistently evaluating outcomes.

While it might be tempting to just jump in with fitness classes, WELCOA stresses a data-driven plan that begins with a health risk assessment (HRA) – a questionnaire of 15 to 50 questions about each employee’s health history. (These HRAs often are administered online, and most insurance carriers offer them for free to their clients’ employees.) The results will create a picture of what the employees’ health looks like, help determine what sorts of programs might be appropriate for a specific business, and ultimately allow management to evaluate progress and determine a return on investment.

Although huge amounts of health resources are used by people with major or chronic medical problems – heart attack, cancer, lung disease and diabetes, for example – surprisingly, much of what causes employees to miss work are smaller ailments that afflict them or their family members. “One of the things that compelled me a lot with WELCOA,” Chapman says, “(is that) while you may not immediate see a drop in your insurance premiums, what you do see is a drop in ‘presenteeism.’”

Presenteeism is the term coined for the productivity-crimping reality that occurs when employees are actually at work, but they are distracted or not working to their full potential. For example, migraine headaches are something that can negatively affect a person’s work for a long time before they are properly treated. And then there are allergies, with their attendant headache, watering eyes, sneezing, sore throat, coughing and runny nose. “You have people who come to work, but they don’t necessarily feel good,” Chapman explains.

“They’re not necessarily focused on their work, (and) not getting the work done so well.”

Employing a diverse arsenal of activities and educational tools, Chapman’s staff worked hard to make wellness a priority. They created a Wellness Council with representatives from sections throughout the Okaloosa County Health Department and used e-mail, meetings, newsletters and other communication methods to canvas the workplace with the wellness message. They launched the “Health Tip of the Day” e-mail blast; the “OCHD Messenger,” a monthly health newsletter; and the quarterly “OCHD Wellness Journal.” They began offering wellness workshops on a monthly basis and even opened a Wellness Library of magazines, books, videos and other resources addressing smoking cessation, stress management, physical activity and many other topics.

Once the program was up and running at the health department, Chapman says she witnessed a swift shift in attitudes. “You begin to see this change in the mindset,” she says. “People are thinking more about their health. They are feeling better.” And they were shedding weight, too, she recalls. “The first year, out of a staff of 100, maybe 110, we lost 400 pounds,” she says, “and we dropped our average blood pressure.” The Okaloosa County Health Department was awarded in its efforts, receiving a Bronze Well Workplace Award from WELCOA in 2005. Since then, says Chapman, she and her staff have shared the wellness message throughout the county.

The results ultimately reached throughout the organization – even Chapman herself was affected. “I was within my weight range,” she says. “But I’ll tell you, I’m a physician, I run this county health department, but I learned a great bit about nutrition,” a topic she had not studied since her medical school days 26 years ago. “This was very educational for me about healthy food choices, and I learned a lot about new foods that I may not have bought (before) I learned about what they are.”

Chapman and her staff are still working toward wellness, she says, having recently finished a pedometer program and repeating one of their early intervention campaigns. “I’ve worn a pedometer for the last four-and-a-half years,” Chapman says. “When my first wellness coordinator came to me to promote this idea, I said, ‘I really need to do this myself.’ … I kind of thought I was active. Everybody thought I was. I’m tall and thin.” But when the pedometer logged a mere 2,500 steps, well short of the 10,000 daily goal, “Well, I was shocked. I had to say, ‘I’m not active enough. I have to increase that.’”

The Okaloosa County Health Department’s experience is a case in point: Wellness programs aren’t just for corporate titans with big budgets. Along the Emerald Coast, in addition to the health department, several employers have joined WELCOA, including Okaloosa County Schools, White-Wilson Medical Center, the city of Destin, Twin Cities Hospital and Gulf Coast Community College. 

WELCOA’s 7 cs
1 Capturing on Senior Level Support
2 Creating Cohesive Wellness Teams
3 Collecting Data to Drive Health Efforts
4 Crafting an Operating Plan
5 Choosing Appropriate Interventions
6 Creating a Supportive Environment
7 Consistently Evaluating Outcomes

You can join the nationwide group through this site, or link to wellness information — all free — on more than 50 other sites by clicking on “Free Resources” and then “Helpful Sites.”