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Balancing Act: Companies encourage employees to join wellness programs, get healthy

By Cindy Krischer Goodman, McClatchy Newspapers –

A friend of mine is overweight, probably about 100 pounds more than what would be considered healthy. She works long hours, eats when she is stressed and says she has no time to exercise.

Her employer is much less cavalier than she about the situation. After a health assessment showing she’s at risk for diabetes, she has been “encouraged” to participate in a weight-loss program and forced to pay a higher insurance premium. “I work hard. Should I really have to pay more than my slack co-worker because I’m overweight?” she asked me.

I expect to hear that question more often.

Increasingly, our health has become much more than just our own personal business. Employers are plunging deep into wellness programs, gauging just how far they can go to get their employees to make lifestyle changes that could reduce soaring health insurance costs.

“Health insurance is a big-ticket item,” says Hiram Marrero, senior vice president of Willis, Miami, an employee benefits consulting firm. “I think we’re at a point in time where employees understand that.”

A study released Monday by Willis North America’s Human Capital Practice found the wellness movement is evolving and encountering new challenges. About 60 percent of the companies surveyed have wellness programs, an increase of 13 percent from 2010. And the majority of organizations with programs currently in place are looking to invest and expand.

But Willis found employers still struggle with how to get employees and managers to participate and stay engaged. About 76 percent of companies say increasing participation is the top goal for their wellness program in the next year.

Yet for employers, coaxing participating is tricky. Wellness programs can spark culture change and boost morale — or they can break down trust and cause resentment. “A communication plan has to be the top of the list,” says Jennifer C. Price, senior health outcomes consultant for Willis Human Capital Practice.

Most companies start their wellness efforts by figuring out where their risks and costs lie. About 72 percent of companies require biometric screenings or health assessment participation to participate in the company health insurance plan, Willis found. Some even offer incentives to get screened.

Then employers are using those screenings not only to develop targeted programs, but also to set employees’ individual premiums. A non-smoker or someone with a low body mass index may receive a discount. Companies typically use a third party to administer screenings and provide feedback. But will that be enough of a defense should an employee who is fired later sue for discrimination?

“An employer’s best defense is ‘I didn’t know,’?” says Mark J. Neuberger, an employment attorney with Foley & Lardner in Miami. “I didn’t fire him because he is a diabetic because I never saw the results.”

Meanwhile, Willis found companies are starting to go beyond window dressing, even knowing it may take years to see the cost-savings. Big companies in particular reported upping the level of sophistication they’re using to communicate with employees and vowing to stay committed.

Later this week, Penny Shaffer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida market president for South Florida, will take to the streets and walk alongside hundreds of her employees from Port St. Lucie to South Miami-Dade as part of Move@Lunch Day. Shaffer says her company, like others, has identified who and what factor into its high insurance costs. From that, it launched a large scale wellness program with a dedicated budget. “We’re looking at things to stem the tide,” she said. “That takes time and money.”

Shaffer says three years of tweaking and responding to feedback has propelled employee participation in wellness from 60 percent to 74 percent. Now her goal is to build to 80 percent participation. While she’s proud of the numbers, it’s not really full-scale participation that she feels employers are after. “If you get employees with four or five risk factors to meet with health coaches and modify their behavior, the numbers don’t look big but the cost savings could be huge.”

One Florida company has discovered a strategy to prevent employee pushback. DHL Express USA, the express shipping company, began its wellness program, GoHealth, in January. It’s employee driven, supported by management.

For example, you won’t catch DHL Express’s CEO Ian Clough using the elevator to and from his fourth floor offices in Plantation, Fla. There’s a bounty on Clough’s head should he consider skipping the stairs. And Clough now carries out most of his management meetings while walking around the lake outside.

The company’s wellness efforts are coordinated by a central champion outside of top management, “an operations guy.” Each office has a volunteer that brainstorms programs — competitions, speakers, charity runs — for their area. Then he or she logs all activities on a website to share and generate ideas for others. “The biggest value has been around employee engagement,” Clough says. “They’ve been able to come up with imaginative solutions for becoming healthier and it’s all coming from the front line.”

Public relations professional Michelle Palomino just participated in a biggest loser contest at The Conroy Martinez Group, the PR firm where she works. She likes her employer taking interest in her health and fitness. “When you think about it, you spend most of your day at work. It’s more effective to have the company involved.” Mother of a 10-month-old, she says she never would have lost weight (16 pounds) had her employer not made this attempt to change the office culture. “Dieting and exercise has become group talk,” she says. “If everyone remains committed, I will feel obligated to do so, too.”

Going forward, Price at Willis says wellness will have even more of a social aspect — and companies will do more to reach spouses and family members who also are on the company health plan. Some companies already are holding web- or app-based fitness competitions. Whatever tactic an employer takes, Price advises addressing the naysayer or resentful participant. “They are not going to go away.”

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