Workplace wellness: Bootstrap fitness

Don’t tell Harold Jackson that your company is too small and your budget too tight to make a difference in employee health. And don’t tell him it doesn’t matter. In a company where once a quarter of the employee population smoked and candy was a daily staple, healthier habits now reign. And in some cases, the small but persistent efforts have dramatically changed lives.

“I feel a lot better, and I get around a lot better,” says Cal Jackson, 65, Harold Jackson’s older brother and former operations manager for the family-run Buffalo Supply Inc., in Lafayette. Two years ago, Cal Jackson, who’s now “easing into retirement,” tipped the scale at 250 pounds and lugged an oxygen tank around to breathe. In the past two years, he’s lost 60 pounds, hung up the oxygen tank, gone off all diabetes medicine and cut his heart medicine down by two-thirds. “It kind of gives you a new outlook on life.”

Buffalo Supply could serve as a poster company for a new wellness movement. At a time when tighter economic tensions are convincing some owners to forget health-boosting efforts altogether, a message is being sent out on many fronts: Small changes lead to big returns, and current times make employee wellness more crucial than ever.

Refocusing on wellness

“Both the NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are putting a focus on wellness in small business right now,” says Harold Jackson, executive chairman and past CEO of Buffalo Supply, a 16-employee medical-device distribution company. “I think they perceive that somehow wellness got lost in the economic downturn, and we think it’s prudent to refocus,” said Jackson, who’s active in both groups.

Because people generally spend most of their time in the workplace, businesses have become the wellness focus on both the national and local fronts. LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit agency aimed at reducing obesity, and the Tri-County Health Department in conjunction with the YMCA, have recently launched workplace wellness efforts (see sidebar).

The notion is simple: Through leadership example and small, low-cost changes that alter a workplace’s atmosphere, businesses can make a big difference in the state of the nation’s health and out-of-control health-care system, and in the company’s own bottom line. “I almost had a coronary at the beginning of the year when we got our annual increase,” Jackson said. The steep, 20-percent hike amounts to enough to hire a new employee, he said.

But Jackson has made great strides with small changes in the past two years: swapping the break-room candy bowl with fresh fruits and vegetables ($5-$10 a week), offering flu shots ($200), and creating a workout room with bargain-priced and employee-donated equipment ($6-$700). “I don’t consider that a substantial investment, especially not with the return in attitude and the return in health.”

Changing bad behaviors

Smokers and obese employees do bump up health bills, with tobacco alone costing taxpayers $96 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And recent studies suggest the nation’s obesity epidemic (more than two out of every three Americans are overweight or obese), might be taking an even greater toll.

In a study published in the March issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Mayo Clinic researchers analyzed the added costs of smoking and obesity among more than 30,000 Mayo Clinic employees and retirees between 2001 and 2007. Smokers’ costs averaged $1,275 higher than nonsmokers’. For overweight employees compared with normal-weight people, annual added costs were even more: $1,850. And for morbidly obese employees, excess costs reached $5,500 per year.

Chronic disease accounts for most of the health-care increases, said Leslie Feuerborn, worksite wellness coordinator for LiveWell Longmont. “And most chronic disease is related to lifestyle and behaviors,” Feuerborn said. Efforts like Jackson’s are spot-on. “We want to keep healthy people healthy, and we want to help people with chronic disease manage that disease.”

Before Buffalo Supply’s “bootstrap” gym was created, Ronda Wilberg was neglecting her workouts. Long work days, including carpooling back and forth from Loveland to Lafayette, sapped her motivation to head back out to the gym once the vendor specialist was home. “I have MS (multiple sclerosis), so it’s especially important that I keep physically active to keep my muscles from cramping up,” Wilberg said. Now she works out nearly every day, waiting for her carpool ride, even shedding 15 pounds as an added bonus.


Leading by example

As long as there’s leadership encouragement and participation, wellness programs will pay off, said Jeff Tetrick, CFO of Pinnacol Assurance. Employees aren’t going to take exercise breaks if management hasn’t made it clear it’s supported, Tetrick said. “And it doesn’t do much good to have a smoking-cessation program if the CEO steps out every 15 minutes to a smoking station.”

With those two things in place, companies should expect at least a $3 return for every $1 spent (a conservative estimate based on a number of studies). The return comes in reduced health-care costs and improved productivity, said Tetrick, whose company has been assessing its employees’ health for the past three years, simultaneously bumping up wellness efforts. “Three years ago, of the population that took that assessment, 34 percent had one or more chronic conditions,” he said. “That’s down to 20 percent today. If I can eliminate chronic conditions in the workplace, not only does that cut our health-care cost; it cuts absenteeism and presenteeism.” Presenteeism refers to employees who show up to work but aren’t productive.

Having exercise and smart food choices accessible does make a difference, Wilberg said. “I feel better. I’m more energetic. I don’t have that 2 o’clock crash where I can’t keep my eyes open. It keeps the stress level down, and I appreciate the fact that they (managers) are looking out for my wellbeing. If I’m healthy and happy, I’m going to be more productive at work.”


Becoming fitness friendly

At Pinnacol, the collective employee weight has dropped 4 percent. “You might say: Well, 4 percent? Big deal,” Tetrick said. “But it’s a downward trend. We are trying to change behavior.” And that’s the message LiveWell Colorado is trying to send, said Lisa Walvoord, vice president of policy. “It really takes a sustainable effort, which tends to mean you have some changes happening in the people within your organization.” Companies that don’t consistently provide the environment in which people can be healthy won’t see substantial change, she said.

For instance, walk through Walvoord’s offices, and you’ll find running shoes tucked under desks, ready to replace high heels for lunchtime workouts. You’ll find a map that calculates the distance of any walking path around the area and racks outside to park bikes, employees’ own or rented two-wheelers from the Denver B-Cycle program (a program the City of Longmont also just launched). And if you work at LiveWell, be prepared: A meeting with your boss might be held outside, where you trek a few blocks while you talk.

If you work at Pinnacol, photos of employees and artwork by their kids line the stairwell walls, creating incentive to take the calorie-burning route. Cold water and healthy snacks replace sugary sodas and treats. Once a month, you can go on an employee walk, and you might join an employee-organized fitness competition for a fun, morale-boosting event. Spirited employees even organize their own competitions at times.

At Buffalo Supply, Wilberg often works out with colleagues. “I feel like it builds camaraderie when you work out together,” Wilberg said. “It’s a different atmosphere. You’re not in work mode. You’re in relaxation mode. You build a rapport with that person, and when you come back into the office, that carries with you.” And having built-in workout partners does offer motivation, she said. “You don’t want to be called a slacker.”

For Cal Jackson, workout wellness changed his life and the vitality of his company. “And, I think when you get healthier, it also tends to rub off on the family,” he said, noting that his wife, who cooks better for him, has lost 30 pounds. “It’s just amazing what exercise can do.”

Companies with successful wellness programs also tend to attract and retain employees. “I’m really passionate about this,” Tetrick said. “In so many ways, it’s really good for employers. This is a simple way to ensure the long-term viability of a company. And think about the legacy of Colorado. Colorado is the healthiest state right now, but we are rapidly losing that position. We need to keep it to compete globally for employees. It’s an economic issue. It’s not just a feel-good issue. Plus, it really is fun.”



Buffing up: Aurora companies learn some fitness tricks

A group of Aurora employers are game for transforming their businesses into health-friendly atmospheres for the good of their workers and their bottom line. They’ve joined a pilot project spearheaded by the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver and funded with a national grant that will teach management simple, low-cost ways to boost wellness in the workplace.

Members of the YMCA, Aurora Chamber of Commerce, Tri-County Health Department, LiveWell Colorado, City of Aurora and EMERGE will teach such changes as: ice-water instead of soda, fruit instead of donuts, competitions to take the stairs, and mid-meeting stretch breaks, among many other things, to the participating employers during the 18-month initiative already under way. When employers graduate in September, they will go on to mentor another business.

Participating employers are: Suss Buick GMC, Staybridge Suites, Advantage Security, Central Colorado AHEC, Fitzsimons Credit Union, Pridemark, Aurora Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Insurance Professionals. For more information: Michele Haugh, worksite wellness coordinator, Tri-County Health Department, (720) 200-1518,