Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Solano firms use wellness programs to boost bottom lines, morale employee morale, stamina

By Richard Bammer/ RBammer@TheReporter.com
Posted: 05/02/2010 01:03:08 AM PDT

Benefits of company-sponsored wellness programs -- walks, runs, weight-loss regimens, blood pressure screening clinics, for example -- may be obvious, but they are becoming increasingly popular among Solano County business leaders because of still-rising costs for health-care premiums.

Study after study indicate that wellness programs are worth every corporate dollar spent. The returns -- improved health-care cost management, increased employee productivity, decreased rates of illness and injuries, reduced employee absenteeism -- translate into savings, which make CEOs and stockholders happy.

But wellness programs, according to a Providence General Medical Center study, also mean plenty of benefits for employees, among them lower levels of stress, increased self-esteem, stamina and morale, improved physical fitness and the potential for weight reduction, which can stave off medical problems such as diabetes and hypertension, which have reached epidemic proportions in the United States.

"For us, it makes good business sense, in addition to being the right thing to do," said Ken McCollum, vice president of human resources at NorthBay Healthcare, which owns and manages two hospitals in Solano County and employs nearly 1,900.

"Certainly, there's the benefit of supporting employee needs in this area, and, from a morale standpoint, it communicates to employees that you care about them," he added. "You can make resources available to them at no cost or low cost."

And it can be as easy as a mouse click. He cited company intranet services that allow NorthBay employees to take a health-risk appraisal by logging in at work or at home, day or night, allowing them to not only review their health risks but also to develop diet and exercise plans and establish fitness and health goals.

"We are in the process of adding elements as we go along," said McCollum, 64, who placed second in his age category at the company's Run For Good 5k fundraiser April 17 in Fairfield. He said the online activities complement "on-site elements," such as walking trails at the NorthBay Medical Center in Fairfield and VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville.

NorthBay's director of public relations, Diane Barney, said the company has recently ramped up its employee wellness program, which began two years ago. Concerned about employee health, the company in January launched a major employee fitness challenge, Get Lean With Green, based on Fairfield physician Kenneth Forsythe's "Green Light Program," five steps toward achieving better health. Nearly 500 employees signed up, she noted.

The program's emphasis is not so much on weight loss as it is on getting in better shape, Barney said in a press release.

And there are incentives. Points are awarded, based on participation, so even physically fit employees can take part. Prizes are handed out along the way, with drawings in June for substantial prizes.

Additionally, 45 NorthBay employees have chosen to support the American Diabetes Association by signing up for today's Tour de Cure bicycle race, a fundraiser for the association, in Napa. Two of the riders have diabetes, Barney noted.

Sandy Durrance, a registered nurse at NorthBay and administrator of the Get Lean With Green wellness challenge, said, "Being healthy is such a big thing right now. In terms of helping employees, statistics and studies show that, when people are more fit, they are more productive and, mentally, they feel better."

NorthBay, she noted, "really wanted to find a program to really launch wellness." The company has carried out a smoking-cessation program and made worksites smoke free, but, Durrance explained, "We wanted to take it to the next level," inviting employees to make a choice to get more fit.

Forsythe, who works at Fairfield Primary Care, said wellness programs within companies large and small have gained popularity in the West for the past 20 years, but "they are becoming really important right now."

"We have an aging population," he said, noting that, with age, medical problems begin to surface among people. Pandemics of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension -- "These are all connected with being overweight," which wellness programs can mitigate, he added.

Gradually, it has dawned on business leaders that investing in wellness "enhances and protects the workers they have," noted Forsythe.

Saying his patients repeatedly tell him one thing -- "Doc, I just want to be healthy" -- Forsythe said, "They want to do something about their health. They need simple, sensible guidelines and they exist in the Green Light Program."

Durrance said Forsythe is at the forefront of new generation of physicians unafraid of candor with their overweight patients. They tell them "they need to do something about it," she said.

Participation in corporate wellness programs is voluntary, of course, but, McCollum said, "We try hard to listen to our employees and try not to coerce them into things that they'd rather not do."

All of NorthBay's employee wellness activities coincide with National Employee Health and Fitness Day, May 19. Created by the National Association for Health and Fitness in 1989, the day raises awareness of the role worksite health promotion programs play in making a business healthier and more productive.

At the Jelly Belly Candy Co. in Fairfield, company spokeswoman Tami Holt said the company pays a portion of its employees' gym fees and encourages workers to share fitness tips and recipes. "We try to keep it fun," she said.

As you might expect, Travis Air Force Base has long had an employee wellness program in effect, in part because of the needs of the military service. "The military has a huge focus on fitness and wellness," said Mary Nelson, a civilian employee and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who oversees the base's wellness program. "The priority is to make sure the airmen (a term that includes men and women) are fit to fight -- that's the first priority."

Regulations require that all active-duty personnel take an annual fitness test (soon to be twice-yearly) that includes sit-ups, push-ups and completion of a 1.5-mile run.

But base officials also seek to enhance airmen's health in other ways, too, said Nelson. She cited a tobacco-cessation program and gait analysis, that is, how a person walks or runs.

"We also look at body fat analysis," obesity prevention, metabolism analysis and, from time to time, host blood pressure screening clinics and computer-based motivational programs, she said.

"We're helping them to take better care of themselves, to prevent trips to the hospital," said Nelson. McCollum called corporate wellness and fitness programs "a thing of the future," adding, "A lot of employers are using some type of wellness initiative at their worksites. It's been proven: When an employee is leading a more healthy lifestyle and eating the right food, they feel better and they're more productive -- not just at work but in their personal lives as well."