Employers find returns in workplace wellness investments

  • Article by: LORRAINE MIRABELLA , Baltimore Sun
  • Updated: February 2, 2014 - 11:45 AM

Company programs to prevent chronic disease get extra attention amid health care reforms and the Affordable Care Act.

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At First Mariner Bank in Baltimore, these employees participated in a weight-loss program through a partnership with Medifast and lost between 20 and 103 pounds each.

Photo: KIM HAIRSTON, Baltimore Sun

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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 vs. 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.

“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.

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