We all win with wellness in workplace

  • Article by: AMY KLOBUCHAR and ERIK PAULSEN
  • Updated: June 17, 2011 - 6:24 AM

It's a nonpartisan way to get rising health care costs under control.

General Mills executive assistant Clara Echten­kamp took 45 minutes for a workout in the gym at company headquarters. Echtenkamp has worked at General Mills for 20 years and tries to get in a workout every day.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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In these tough economic times, spiraling health care costs continue to bust the budgets of families and businesses alike. If we don't get these rising costs under control, all of us will suffer the consequences.

One sure way to make health care more affordable, both for families and businesses, is to encourage people to stay healthy in the first place. That's what is meant by the term "wellness."

A healthier lifestyle benefits not only individuals and their families, but also the businesses that employ them. And it benefits all of us as fellow citizens and taxpayers.

Helping people lead healthier lifestyles is not an issue of Republicans vs. Democrats, or business vs. labor.

That's why, as a Democrat and a Republican, we recently announced the creation of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Workplace Wellness.

We made the announcement at Apogee Enterprises, a Minnesota-based international company that offers a great example of how a workplace wellness program can pay off for employer and employees alike.

The formation of our caucus recognizes the vital role of employers (private, public and nonprofit) in supporting healthy lifestyles among their employees.

The goal of our new Workplace Wellness Caucus is not necessarily to promote specific legislation. Instead, we intend to focus on how wellness policies can achieve a very favorable return on investment in workplaces of all types and sizes, and within all budgets.

Workplace wellness is a win-win issue all around. Here's why.

In the traditional disease model of health care delivery, people first get sick and then go see a doctor. Especially with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, this model assumes that many expensive medical procedures, drug regimens and hospitalizations will be needed to treat the patient, probably for many years.

But there's another approach that complements the disease model. This is wellness, which refers to activities that help people stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Because adults spend roughly half of their waking hours on the job, a natural starting point for wellness is in the workplace.

Workplace wellness involves an organized employer-sponsored program that is designed to support employees as they adopt behaviors that reduce health risks and improve quality of life.

Workplace wellness can take a variety of forms. But it starts with a voluntary assessment to identify a person's risk factors related to conditions like blood pressure, cholesterol, weight or smoking.

A next step is for employers to offer incentives to motivate employees to increase their healthy behaviors and give up unhealthy habits. This might include bonuses or reimbursements for employees to take a smoking cessation class or enroll in a fitness program, whether onsite or in the community.

Wellness programs aren't a panacea. They can't prevent someone from getting certain diseases, nor can they ensure that a baby will be born without defects or disabilities.

That's why workplace wellness programs are an important supplement, but not a substitute, for employer-based comprehensive health insurance.

Understandably, businesses must pay attention to their bottom lines, and they need to know what the hard return will be on their investment in workplace wellness. As it happens, that's pretty easy to answer.

Statistics show the rewards for employers make wellness programs well worthwhile.

The Minnesota Department of Health reports that, on average, employers that adopt wellness programs enjoy a 25 percent reduction in sick leave, health plan costs, workers compensation and disability costs.

Overall, companies can expect to save $3 to $6 for every $1 spent on a wellness program.

For businesses large and small, wellness is a great deal to save health care dollars with healthier, more productive employees.

In short, as the old tale says, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. Erik Paulsen, a Republican, represents Minnesota Third Congressional District in the U.S. House.

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