Company wellness programs promote exercise, healthy eating and quitting smoking.
Small and medium-sized businesses in Dakota County and elsewhere are climbing aboard the employee wellness bandwagon.
County and state programs offer help in setting up corporate wellness programs that large companies have embraced after seeing health costs drop, said Tom Mason, president of the nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota. The alliance is working with local chambers of commerce to reach their members through wellness forums like one recently held by the Burnsville chamber.
"Smaller companies are just starting to see the business strategy of using wellness to apply to your bottom line. Well employees are more productive and happier," said Mason. "Large businesses like Medtronic, Target and Cargill are keenly aware of the effects of wellness in terms of health care costs and productivity."
The alliance, started more than two years ago by some of Minnesota's largest companies, cites wellness research on its website, viewable through local chamber website links. The studies include:
• Research cited by the American Heart Association that shows the impact of employer spending on health improvement. Programs such as smoking cessation have achieved a rate of return on investment ranging from $3 to $15 for each dollar invested, with savings realized within 12 to 18 months.
• A Highmark Inc. study published in the March/April 2011 edition of the American Journal of Health Promotion found that employees who consistently used work wellness programs saw their health care costs rise at a 15 percent slower rate than a comparison group without such programs.
• Flu shot programs for adults have resulted in 34 to 44 percent fewer physician visits and a near equal drop in lost workdays, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
"I think there is a growing interest by employers in doing things to help people make healthy choices, because so much of what contributes to chronic heart disease, cancer or diabetes is preventable," said Mary Montagne, Dakota County health promotion supervisor.
County health specialists often recommend that companies start by adopting free and low-cost initiatives, such as a policy establishing tobacco-free company grounds, encouraging exercise during breaks and replacing calorie-laden food with fruit or healthy foods in vending machines, cafeterias or company meetings, Montagne said. She said her office worked with businesses, churches and other employers with about 10,000 workers in 19 locations in a state-sponsored program over the past two years. The big three health concerns the county and businesses focus on are healthy eating, adequate exercise and smoking cessation, she said.
Rigid Hitch, Inc. of Burnsville worked with county specialists on a tobacco cessation program that provides phone, online and in-person counseling on how to stop smoking or chewing tobacco. About half of its 40 workers used tobacco, and eight agreed to try the state-funded Quitplan, Montagne said.
The eight met weekly on company time for an hour with a counselor for five weeks in 2010. Afterwards, half used less tobacco and four quit smoking, the company said. One of the four who quit said she didn't have a bronchitis attack last winter for the first time in years, avoiding a doctor visit and sick days.
According to Mercer's 2010 national survey of employer-sponsored wellness plans, only about 27 percent of firms with fewer than 500 workers offered wellness programs. That compared to 43 percent of firms with at least 10,000 workers.
Trusight Inc., a 1,150-member association of small employers, recently surveyed 285 Minnesota companies and found 29 percent host classes to help workers quit smoking, 16 percent offer weight loss classes, and 12 percent offer programs for stress reduction. Others have added healthier vending machine food or offer flu shots at work.
Goodrich Corp., an aerospace product maker with four facilities in Eagan and Burnsville, started a wellness program in 2008, and by 2010, it found that its total health costs had dropped for the first time. That meant no increase in 2012 premiums for employees, including 1,500 in Dakota County, said human resources manager Sarah Wellcome.
She said the company, which self-insures its employee health costs, offers exercise rooms, healthy cafeteria foods, and classes on weight loss and other health matters. It gave employees a day off in September to attend its first Wellness Day, which included a bike ride, a run, volleyball, a farmer's market and other activities.
"It was getting people involved in taking care of themselves," said spokesman Sol Mirelez. Besides reducing health costs and improving fitness and health, Mirelez said, "It's also mentally therapeutic. You function better."
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283