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Posted: April 16, 2009

Save money by investing in employee wellness

Healthy employees cost $4,000 less than unhealthy workers

Sarah Sweer

With increasing obesity rates and rising health care costs, workplace wellness is gaining support. During these tough economic times, when the bottom line is the bottom line, why create a workplace wellness program?

The answer is simple: Healthier people cost less, are more productive and can contribute more to the performance of your company. If a company keeps its employees healthy, the benefits over time are lower expenses and higher employee output, both of which can lead to higher earnings for the company.

Denver Water employs both office workers and field workers and was the first Denver company to offer walking treadmill stations at its locations.  “Our wellness program started 15 years ago, and we’ve seen our health care costs stabilize instead of increase,” said Sandra Miller, manager of healthcare and benefit administration for Denver Water. “Our program is based around the diverse needs of our employee population.”

A workplace wellness program should embrace all aspects of wellness including physical activity, nutrition and promoting healthy lifestyles for the employee while at home and at work. 

According to the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center, healthy people cost an average of $4,000 less each year in healthcare costs than unhealthy employees. 

There are many ways to create a healthy work environment, including: 

1. Ergonomics: Denver Water provides ergonomics experts to check office areas to ensure comfort. The company also looks at how to minimize work loads, stresses and overuse for its field workers. Any company can ask an ergonomics specialist to come to the office to assess chair/computer arrangements.
2. Healthy vending: Many employers are looking to add healthy options to the vending machine. Instead of potato chips, employers can offer apples and granola bars.
3. Workout center: Some companies are adding gyms into their buildings. This allows employees the convenience of working out before or after work for a lower cost. If your facility does not have room for a workout center, consider using an empty space for aerobics, yoga, stretching, and weights. Another option is to offer health club reimbursements to employees. 
4. Provide fruit: Consider providing fruit as a healthy afternoon snack weekly or monthly at a regularly scheduled time where employees can come together. This creates healthy snacking and builds team morale.
5. Healthy meal options at the on-site cafeteria: Many employers that have a cafeteria on-site provide healthy meals at a price reduction, making it easier for employees to choose inexpensive, healthy options.
6. Well-lit stairwells: For employees who prefer to take the stairs, ensure the stairwells are safe and well-lit.
7. Healthy tips bulletin board:  Provide healthy recipes, fitness tips, and educational materials bulletin board-style to help raise awareness around health in the office. Employees may even want to identify walking partners through the bulletin board.
8. Stress management: Create a space for employees to take a short break during times of stress. You could create a separate relaxation room or even utilize an empty office.
9. Internal Intranet site with a wellness page: Selecting additional mediums to reach employees, including technology, can help provide real-time information on wellness programs, links, education and new programs coming to the office. 
10. Annual health awareness day: Create a specific day to focus on preventive health care. “We offer Colonoscopy Day in partnership with Rose Medical Center for all of our employees,” said Miller. “Any employee who gets a colonoscopy on that day is fully covered by our health plan.”

As you start planning for your own corporate wellness program, consider these necessary components:

• Senior level support: In order to be successful, major change initiatives must be actively led by senior management. What are the organization’s short term and long term strategic priorities? What benefits can be expected from your wellness initiative and what’s the potential value of health promotion to the organization?
• Branding the wellness program: Develop a slogan/brand to make the program official and identifiable.
• Create a cohesive internal wellness team: The team should consist of employees from different areas of the organization – senior level management, front-line employees, benefit managers, marketing and communication employees; The team can help develop, guide and oversee wellness efforts.
• Collect data to drive health efforts: What does the company need out of its health promotion efforts? What do employees want? Sources of data: medical claims, disability claims, facility assessment, health assessments, biometric screening data, absenteeism measurements
• Craft an operating plan based on needs: Develop goals and objectives, choose appropriate interventions, budget, timeline, evaluation plan.
• Create a supportive work environment: Consider physical look, feel and policies: Friendly facilities (vending machines, noise levels, cafeterias, etc); Proactive policies (alcohol and drug policies, non-smoking enforcement, employee assistance programs.
• Evaluate outcomes: Determine the value of what you’ve done

If you’re looking to create a healthy work environment, work with the medical community, insurer and benefit consultants. The sooner you start your workplace wellness program, the sooner you’ll have healthier employees and a healthy business.

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Sarah Sweer is the health promotion and wellness manager for CIGNA HealthCare of Colorado.

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