Employers Find Returns in Workplace-Wellness Investments

By Lorraine Mirabella
The Baltimore Sun

Janis Smith feels a lot healthier, and more confident, since shedding 65 pounds in six months, and that has helped in her job leading employee training for 1st Mariner Bank.

“Being in front of a classroom of people … I don’t feel like everyone is looking at me, they’re listening to what I’m saying versus what I look like,” said Smith, 55, a vice president and director for the Baltimore-based bank. “I just have a lot more energy. I have more stamina. I feel like I have a clearer mind.”

Smith’s transformation in 2012 prompted her bosses to offer the weight-loss program she used, Medifast, as a corporate wellness program.

Since the launch last April, dozens of bank employees have lost more than a combined 700 pounds. As a manager, Smith believes participation has paid off in improved morale, increased energy and less sick time.

As businesses look for ways to blunt the impact of rising health costs, many are investing more in workplace wellness, especially initiatives that help prevent chronic diseases down the road.

Workers compete to walk the most steps, lose the most weight and eat the most fruits and vegetables.

Companies offer flu clinics and health screenings, exercise classes and nutrition guidance, healthy living newsletters and seminars.

Wellness programs have been around in various forms for years, in place at about half of employers with 50 or more workers, according to nonprofit research group RAND Corp. But such programs are getting renewed attention amid health care reform, with the Affordable Care Act promoting wellness programs to lower costs.

“Employers have become more concerned about costs and are looking at additional ways to reduce spending,” said Soeren Mattke, senior scientist and managing director of RAND’s health advisory services. “Many have raised co-payments, and some have introduced more narrow network plans or high-deductible plans to reduce costs. The sense among the employer community is that’s as far as we can go with streamlining the health coverage benefits.

“Now they have to see if they can go to the root of the problem and address the underlying drivers of spending, which is chronic disease.”

A RAND study that examined a PepsiCo wellness program found that efforts to help workers manage chronic illnesses saved $3.78 in health care costs for every dollar invested. But the study found lifestyle-management programs failed to offer returns greater than the costs.

Still, employers say they believe preventive efforts are worthwhile, with programs helping to attract and retain workers as well as keep them more engaged and productive.

When Gabe Oropollo gets to his desk each morning at Agora Inc. in Baltimore, he feels alert and energized. The senior sales manager at the newsletter publisher works out five mornings a week at the company’s gym and nearby partner gyms, doing circuit and weight training with a personal trainer, running on a treadmill and taking yoga classes, all benefits that come with the job.

The 26-year-old father of two young children said the perk helps him stay fit without giving up evening family time. He’s also lost more than 40 pounds.

“It gets the blood flowing, and I’m ready to start my day,” Oropollo said. “And it takes away a lot of stress.”

Workplace workouts at Agora, which built a gym in the basement of one of its nine buildings, also help build camaraderie, promote work-life balance and attract job candidates, the company said. The firm’s 600 workers also have opportunities to work out at Baltimore clubs MV Fitness Athletic Club and Charm City Yoga.

“We never invested in this thinking we would see a dollar-for-dollar return,” said Agora CEO Myles Norin. “From the beginning, we planned to measure our success based on the number of employees who take advantage of the program and tangentially from the stories of the impact it has on their lives.”

Workers in better health stay at their jobs longer and are absent less, said Vanessa Hedgebeth-Bell, Mid-Atlantic human resources manager for M&T Bank, which hopes to expand wellness offerings this year.

“The return is a more engaged workforce, a happier workforce,” Hedgebeth-Bell said. “We want them to have a better personal life and professional life, and it’s hard to do that when you don’t feel well.”

The banking company hands out “wellness” wall calendars each year with health tips. It sponsors flu clinics each fall. And each spring, employees are invited to form five-member teams to compete in walking and fruit- and vegetable-eating competitions.

Employees track the number of cups of fruit and vegetables they consume and wear bank-supplied pedometers to track steps.

Winning teams get fruit baskets at the end of each week.

Last year 800 employees participated, walking more than 32 million steps and eating more than 165,000 cups of fruits and vegetables, Hedgebeth-Bell said.

Peggy Miller, a relationship liaison in the business banking department, headed a team a few years ago and said employees in the group offered one another moral support, though they chose not to compete against others in the company.

They pooled money and bought fruit and vegetables to eat at the office each day.

“Every one of us commented on how much better we felt not eating chips and snacks throughout the day,” Miller said.

“Everyone appreciated having the fresh options available to them.”

Wellness is a department of its own at McCormick & Co., where about 2,400 of more than 3,000 domestic employees work at the headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md.

The spice maker began expanding wellness offerings a couple of years ago to focus more on preventive care.

Its Hunt Valley wellness center is staffed with a medical assistant, a part-time physician and a part-time nutritionist who offers counseling.

Employees can go for annual company-paid health screenings, vaccinations, health counseling and coaching, and a health safety fair, said James Downing, director of global benefits.

McCormick also sends out a monthly wellness newsletter and offers a 12-week educational fitness program that focuses on healthy eating and exercise. Other programs focus on chronic diseases.

McCormick offers private health screenings designed to identify risks and encourage individuals to connect with their doctors, Downing said.

The goal is to “keep the healthy people healthy and try to get people to stay away from being unhealthy,” while keeping the company’s medical cost growth flat or below the national trend, he said.

“We have seen that over the last three years,” Downing said.

About 10 percent of the workforce at the Domino Sugars refinery in Baltimore participates in wellness programs, some of which have been in place more than a decade, said Nicole Copeland, human resources manager for the ASR Group plant.

Programs include a monthly wellness newsletter and annual walking and weight-loss challenges.

Last year, “we challenged employees to maintain their weight from Thanksgiving to New Year’s,” she said, and this year workers who get an annual physical can get a $10 per month reduction in their benefit premiums.

“Every year, we’re looking at new challenges or new initiatives. People spend a lot of time at work, so we want to make certain they have opportunities to make healthy choices.”

T. Rowe Price expanded beyond its traditional offerings, partial reimbursement at fitness clubs, partnerships with Weight Watchers, to “really begin taking a deeper dive into wellness” and encouraging people to be more educated about their health, said Michelle Tracy, manager of global benefits.

The financial services firm now offers on-site biometric screenings and health assessments and uses the information to shape programs.

For instance, the company delivered apples to office pantries last fall alongside posters alerting workers that most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.

“It’s softly presenting information,” Tracy said. “We’re not saying you should eat more fruits and vegetables; we’re just saying 91 percent of us don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and here’s a piece of fruit.”

Smith, the 1st Mariner vice president, had struggled with her weight for many years before she and her daughter went on a Medifast program in 2012.

Medifast, which is based in Owings Mills, Md., customized a program for 1st Mariner, giving employees the option of going to a Medifast center, ordering products online or working with a volunteer health coach, said Brian Lloyd, executive vice president of international and business development.

Employees are reimbursed up to $300 per month for two months. About 70 joined the program and about half continued it after the first two months, Lloyd said. Eight people lost more than 30 pounds each, and five lost more than 50.

Smith’s weight loss has corrected problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and developing diabetes.

She can sit comfortably in an airplane seat and no longer shops in the plus-size section at clothing stores.

Beyond the physical changes, “I feel like I’m not negative any more. I have a better outlook on life,” Smith said. “I’m able to dream about the things you never thought possible … and I can achieve those now.”

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