What you need to know about starting a workplace wellness program

Monday, January 16, 2012
Buzzi Unicern employee Taylor Gorto (Laura Simon)

Through its WorkWell training series, the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce is helping local businesses create wellness programs that are good for employees' individual health, workplace attitude and even the company pocketbook.

"Really what these companies are trying to do is get a better handle on their health care expenditures within their place of business, as well as look at new strategies on how they can be more effective in having a healthy workforce. It's a dual-purpose training series," says Tim Arbeiter, vice president-community development at the chamber. Arbeiter calls on health care professionals from Saint Francis Medical Center, SoutheastHEALTH and Southeast Missouri State University to lead the three-part series, which Arbeiter describes as a "tool kit" for businesses looking to establish a wellness program. The series covers everything from conducting an employee survey and implementing programming to studying health care claims and choosing an area of focus.

From a business standpoint, a wellness program is good for the health and morale of a workplace, says Arbeiter.

"When the work force is healthier and happier, studies and reports indicate they are more productive," he says. "From a benefit standpoint, it can be one additional thing to offer to employees that is unique and could have life-changing effects." As employees take better care of their health, employers are likely to see fewer health care claims; a program might even be an incentive for better insurance packages, says Arbeiter.

"Wellness programs aren't the silver bullet immediately for a business when it comes to curbing health care usage and costs, but there are some long-term effects that eventually happen if you have a healthier workforce," says Arbeiter.

A wellness screening is always the first thing Cindy Seyer, director of wellness services at SoutheastHEALTH, suggests to employers looking to start a wellness program. The screening includes a health risk assessment, lipid profile and glucose check.

"We provide an actual report that tells them where they're at risk as individuals, and we also provide aggregate data so the company knows what they're most likely to see from their employees as far as health care claims," says Seyer. The results help employers choose educational components and programming to meet the health care needs of their employees.

"One of the larger benefits is that we can identify risks before individuals have a significant health care event that then affects health insurance claims," she adds.

Bradley Meyr, facility manager for Buzzi Unicem USA's Alternate Fuels Division, started a company wellness program in late 2011 after completing the chamber's WorkWell series. Though he encountered resistance from employees at first, he saw a change in attitude almost as soon as the health survey results were in.

"There were some surprises, honestly. Two employees came to me afterward and said they had no idea they had diabetic issues," says Meyr. Diabetes, cholesterol and heart disease have been the company's focus so far.

"It was very useful and it almost gave a shock factor to some people. They wanted to do better in life, to eat better, exercise better. Without that survey, there was not a lot of interest (in the program)," says Meyr. "I'm still only talking about maybe 60 percent participating, but I'll take 60 over what we had last year," he says, when there was no program.

Now, Buzzi Unicem employees track their health care progress each week, including exercise, drinking water and eating fruits and vegetables. Employees compete throughout the year and have opportunities to cash in on prizes. Meyr is already seeing positive changes.

"The biggest change was that we removed a lot of lost time accidents related to minor back issues and muscle pulls," says Meyr. "The only downside is that we have less Krispy Kremes. Now, everybody looks at you funny when you bring them in."

Changes like this -- to an overall culture of wellness -- are just what health care professionals are hoping for.

"People don't usually budget for wellness; they hesitate to put the money out there," says Sandy Duncan, operations manager for Fitness Plus in Cape Girardeau. Having a company wellness program encourages or enables employees to take care of their health every day, she explains.

"I think that's the biggest thing that companies are looking at now, as their health insurance goes up every year. There are a lot of quick fixes you can do, like raising the deductibles and premiums, but the only way to really make a difference is in the health of your employees," says Duncan. "You're not going to see a financial impact right away. It's an investment, and it's especially good for people who have long-term employees."

Though Meyr hasn't seen his company's data yet, he does expect higher health care costs this year.

"I have been informed that we will possibly see an increase (in costs) the first year because now employees are aware of medical and wellness needs and seeing their doctor," he says. Still, he expects financial improvement in the future, and encourages other business leaders to start looking into a similar program, beginning with a health assessment survey.

"Take small steps. Just start walking," Meyr suggests. "Know your employees, know your people and make the program fit what they are going to follow."

The Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce will hold its next WorkWell series in early fall. For more information, contact Arbeiter at 573-335-3312 or tarbeiter@capechamber.com.

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