Inspiring workers to wellness can be tricky
Rising through the ranks of several multibillion-dollar companies, Sue Parks commuted from her Laguna Niguel, Calif., home to a series of grueling jobs in Phoenix, Denver and Dallas.
Yet she always observed a strict ritual.
Rain or shine, Parks walked at least 10,000 steps a day – even if she had to meet her goal by marching in front of a hotel TV screen or pacing through airports.
Indeed, while counting her steps at an Omaha, Neb., airport one day, the stressed-out executive decided to quit her last job as executive vice president at Kinko's to start her own company.
Parks launched WalkStyles Inc. in 2003 as a consumer platform, offering pedometers, fitness clothing and a website that challenged users to measure their athletic activity. In the past three years, the Irvine, Calif.-based company has moved briskly into "corporate wellness," one of the hottest niches in human resources.
"My passion was how to keep people healthy," recalled Parks, 56. "That's so hard when you have a demanding career."
As medical insurance costs soar, American companies are crafting programs to get employees to stop smoking, lose weight, measure health risks and adopt healthy habits.
"Wellness programs have often been viewed as a nice extra, not a strategic imperative," a 2010 Harvard Business Review study noted. "But the return on investment on comprehensive, well-run employee wellness programs can be as high as 6-to-1. Companies ... have reaped big rewards in the form of lower health care costs, greater productivity and higher morale."
This year, a Rand Corp. survey of 3,100 large- and medium-size companies and government agencies found that about half have wellness programs. Two-thirds of those organizations offer financial incentives to employees who participate in health-related activities or answer questionnaires about risks such as smoking and high blood pressure, which are tallied anonymously.
"Workplace wellness programs can help contain the current epidemic of lifestyle-related diseases," the Rand study concluded.
But many workers are resistant. Only 7 percent of smokers and 10 percent of severely overweight employees take advantage of company programs, the survey found.
Beginning in January, the Affordable Care Act will allow employers to tie a greater portion of workers' health insurance premiums to participation in wellness programs – up from 20 percent to 30 percent of the cost of coverage. Tobacco users can be charged 50 percent more than nonusers.
With a staff of 16, including several part-timers, Parks manages health initiatives for about 30 small- and medium-size companies. In an interview with the Orange County Register, she talked about what works – and what doesn't – in such programs.
QUESTION: You were a top executive at US West, Gateway and Kinko's. What did you learn there about employee health?
ANSWER: Back then I wasn't even conscious that there were companies with wellness plans. But I was in charge of profit and loss – the bottom line. I was conscious of how much money we spent on health care insurance and workers' comp.
I had employees who could barely breathe after walking up a flight of stairs. I knew we had to figure out how to help people to live healthier.
Q: What does WalkStyles do?
A: Our iCount Wellness program offers customized solutions. We can go big and run an entire wellness effort or go small and support specific challenges, contests and training sessions. Our online platform gives each client its own corporate wellness Web page. It has the company's own banner, pictures and mission.
Our STAR program allows employees to "Set, Track, Achieve and Reward" their personal wellness goals, such as exercise, diet or quitting tobacco, on individual Web pages, which roll up into the company page. We run challenges and incentives around these tools: Companies need help engaging employees in activities such as biometric testing, going to a lunch-and-learn session, or participating in charity walks.
Q: What do you mean by challenges?
A: It could be a holiday challenge: When a work group achieves a goal, you add a new visual to a holiday scene on the website. Or when 80 percent of the employees at a particular geographic location reach a goal, the group gets money for a holiday party.
Basing it on goals takes the stress away. You may not be a triathlete. But if you never walked around your building and now you do, that's equally important. Ruthless competition is not the point. We have five wellness coaches on call if people need help keeping commitments to themselves.
Q: Is it intrusive for companies to get involved in employees' personal health?
A: We never see an individual's health information. We track, say, how many total steps a team reports overall. We wouldn't report on who makes their goal.
Results are rolled into an aggregate. If you see your workforce is 70 percent overweight and 50 percent have high cholesterol or hypertension, it behooves you to put in weight-management and stress-reduction programs. ...
If an employee gets a biometric test at a company health fair, and it looks like he's ready for a heart attack, the biometric company calls the individual, not his employer.
Q: The Affordable Care Act allows companies to raise insurance premiums for unhealthy behavior.
A: Obamacare covers preventative exams, which is a positive thing. I prefer the carrot to the stick.
It is a bad idea for a company to start a wellness program by increasing premiums. First you need to engage your employees and provide the tools to do the right thing.
One of my clients plans to charge smokers $150 more a month for insurance. If a company has offered cessation courses and discounts on cessation products and has given workers time to train on those tools, then, at a certain point, if they don't stop smoking, they can pay a bigger share of their medical costs.
Q: What makes for a successful wellness program?
A: Some companies claim to have one when all they have is on-site massages. ... But wellness must be part of the corporate culture. Often the CEO totally gets it and the rest of the senior team doesn't. They don't have to be rah-rah cheerleaders, but they need to be visibly supportive.
Some wellness programs reward just top performers. But if the three most active people win all the prizes then the people who need it most won't participate.
Still, some companies have a competitive culture. So perhaps a team gets bonus points if their managers reach their goals. That changes the dynamics in a fun way. Employees push their senior team to do more. Everyone should feel they can achieve a goal.
CDC'S HEALTH SCORECARD
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a free scorecard to help employers and workers improve health at their worksites.
The 72-page manual assists managers and employees in identifying gaps in health-promotion programs. It offers strategies for tobacco control, nutrition, physical activity, weight management, stress management, depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, signs and symptoms of heart attack and stroke, and emergency response to heart attack and stroke.
The scorecard's 100 questions cover such topics as whether an employer offers health insurance with no or low out-of-pocket costs for nicotine-replacement medication; whether more than half of vending machine food and beverages are healthy items such as skim milk and fresh fruit; and whether posted signs encourage employees to use stairs rather than elevators.
The questions are based on proven strategies for improving health. Based on weighted answers – and some measures are more important than others – managers and workers can calculate the effectiveness of a company's wellness program.
The CDC developed the scorecard in collaboration with the Emory University Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, the Research Triangle Institute and experts from government agencies and private businesses.
More information: 800-232-4636, email email@example.com, or visit online at http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/pubs/worksite(UNDERSCORE)scorecard.htm
Want to pick up the pace? Here's a sampling of gadgets that help you count steps.
WalkStyles sells a simple pedometer, the Dash ($18), which companies can distribute as a wellness perk.
Smartphone users can find free applications to measure fitness and diet, including MyFitnessPal, Runtastic and MapMyRun, or inexpensive apps such as the iTreadmill pedometer ($1.99).
More elaborate gadgets include Fitbit Zip ($60), which measures steps, calorie burn and distance; Jawbone Up ($150), which tracks fitness, diet and sleep goals; and Nike FuelBand SE ($150), which shows real-time progress toward a user's step and calorie goals.
WELLNESS TIPS FOR MANAGERS
Here are some ways to promote healthy workplaces:
–At meetings, chuck the tubs of chocolate kisses. Bring on the apples.
–Make it OK to keep your sneakers under your desk.
–Set an example: stand and stretch every hour.
–Suggest walking meetings for one-on-ones.
–After a charity walk, follow up by thanking participants personally.
–Attend nutrition lunch-and-learns so you don't send the message, "I'm too busy. That's for everyone else."
–Recognize employees who share their stop-smoking or weight-loss stories on your wellness website.
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